Found Drowned

G.F. Watts's painting, Found Drowned, portrays a fallen woman, drowned to death on the shores of the Thames. His painting is said to have been based on Thomas Hood's (1799-1845) poem the "Bridge of Sighs," which describes "one more unfortunate, weary of breath, rashly importunate, gone to her death!" Every element of the painting suggests the tragedy of her predicament, consistent with the poignant language of Hood's poem.

Watts depicts the woman fallen by the side of the river, her dress still flowing in the rough waters, her body emerging in full light contrasting with a background of a grimy cityscape. Hood sets the scene:

Is she plunged boldly —
No matter how coldly
The rough river ran —
Over the brink of it,
Picture it — think of it,
Dissolute Man!
Lave in it, drink of it,
Then, if you can!

The description of the menacing water rings true to Watts' representation of the Thames. The year the piece was painted marked a time in London's history when the Thames served as a passageway between empire and metropolis, but also a threat to the citizen's health and the city's livability. Each day, for example, 250 tons of fecal matter was being dumped into the waters, endangering those who even neared its shores (Jonathan Schneer). Watts' depiction of London, with dark indigo smog covering the industrial cityscape, suggests not only the filth of the physical setting, but the threat of urban living for a woman. This drowned girl, likely impregnated and likely suicidal, exemplifies the Victorian trope of the fallen woman, and the inevitability of corruption of the female urban dweller.

Watts strengthens the tragic nature of the scene by infusing it with religious symbolism, most obviously, the cross she forms with her body. While this pose references Christ on the cross, I argue it also represents the emotional crossroads of suicide, and the choice she faced, "Mad from life's history, Glad to death's mystery"(Hood, xii: 5-6), the moment before death. Her "fair auburn tresses" (Hood vii: 3) harken back to the infamous Mary Magdelene, the original fallen woman. This reference furthers the possibility that the drowned girl was pregnant, as Mary Magdelene gets described in Luke as "a woman in the city, which was a sinner"(Luke 7:36-50). Watts, however, does not dwell on the sins of the woman, but instead, the promise of atonement. The star above the girl emerges from an otherwise ominous sky, and a mysterious light shines on her seemingly weightless body, illuminating her as she "leaves, with meekness, Her sins to the Savior!"(Hood, xviii, 3-4).

Discussion Questions

1. Watts' painting is often compared to Sir John Everett Millais's 1851-52 painting Ophelia. Do the contrasting settings of the scenes (urban versus rural) have any bearing on their overall effect?

2. Does Watts' employ a more Pre-Raphaelite or Classicizing style in his depiction of her body? What are the implications of this artistic choice?

3. How is space dealt with in the painting, specifically in reference to the viewer's location? How does the expansive background set the mood of the painting?

References

Schneer, Jonathan. The Thames. 2005, Yale University Press, New Haven & London.

Ed. Arthur Quiller-Couch The Oxford Book of English Verse: 1250-1900. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1919.

"Mary Magdelene" at www.wikipedia.org.


Victorian Web Homepage Visual Arts George Frederic Watts paintings

Last modified 9 April 2007