Found Drowned. [Click on thumbnail for larger image.]In the 1850s, when Watts was in his early thirties, he painted a series of pictures portraying the poor and oppressed. Each could easily be called Compassion followed by a descriptive sub-title. They were never shown to the public until the 1880s, and even then were thought by some viewers to be too close to reality for comfort. The subject of Found Drowned, very probably, is a 'fallen woman'. She is lying in a strange pool of light, and in a yellow dress, half in and half out of the river below a stone arch, with a single star in the dark night sky. The star, though small (little more than a dot) draws the eye heavenwards. She has killed herself, we may suppose, after being made pregnant and abandoned by her lover, possibly a man from a higher social class. Yet it's not just another conventional bit of sniping at Victorian hypocrisy and wrong-headedness; it is much more universal and more remarkable than that — it is betrayal caught in paint. She is in the posture of crucifixion with (tellingly?) a brooch in her hand which mimics the nail wound. Is this reading too much into it? It certainly brings to mind: 'Let he who is without sin among you, cast the first stone'. Anger should not be about the mores of a dead society (after all, what can we do about it?) but at the abuse and betrayal of love and loyalty that happens every day and which, perhaps, is portrayed here. Even more pitifully she is not a good-looking woman and we guess at what she, in her blindness, never suspected: she was used. What is painted here is not love that faded but lust satisfied.
Her waxen skin is death, and is terrible to look at, though not all Watts's pictures of death are so stark and comfortless. Under A Dry Arch shows a poor homeless woman propped against the same arch (perhaps) where the drowned girl lay. What we see here is not death but dying. Remarkably, the painter has caught the act of dying, the process of passing away, in a single image. And, terrible as it is, there is also a kind of comfort here as well, a sense of salvation.
The Irish Famine. [Click on thumbnail for larger image.]The picture called The Irish Famine was painted in 1850. It shows a man, two women, and a child in arms sitting in a blighted landscape below a sky turned green and putrid. One woman sits doubled up, hiding her face in despair. The other, the child's mother, holds the man's hand and looks at him. The man, too, has the Wattsian tapering sensitive face and in it we seem to see another kind of death: something has died in him, and yet we also detect strength here; he may think he has given up, but he hasn't. The woman's look of trust is well placed. This is not an intelligent woman and she has lost everything except love, the most important thing of all. Above all it is a portrait of compassion and pity. (One minor note — drawings of the Irish at the time were often cruel caricatures. Watts has caught the authentic Irish face. They can belong to no other nationality.)
Death Crowning Innocence. [Click on thumbnail for larger image.]
For eighty years — most of the twentieth century — Watts had a bad press. There was something un-Victorian about his later landscapes and portraits, but the concept paintings — by which he set the greatest store — were just too Victorian after the anti-Victorian backlash set in. Sir Joshua Reynolds, who died only twenty-five years before Watts was born, believed that it's not the eye which the painter appeals to, it is the mind. Not all of us agree with him nowadays but certainly the paintings for which Watts are best known are didactic (Ruskin called them thought-pictures, and considered Watts to be the best exponent of them.) Most people called them allegorical though Watts preferred to say he painted ideas, which of course is now very post-modern; after all what is conceptual art, the art of our day (and yesterday), but ideas made concrete, though constructed from things rather than pigment? The ideas he painted, however, were very pre-modern; Death and Salvation, Charity and Faith, Judgement and the passage of Time. But, true to his nature, they are not always typically Victorian; Death is not the Grim Reaper, the familiar hooded skeleton with a scythe, but a mother cradling her dead child in her arms. It would have carried a greater emotional charge for Victorians; families were large, infant mortality rates were high. Being called home was a common phrase for dying until the 1950s; people find comfort where they can.
Love Triumphant. [Click on thumbnail for larger image.]
Love Triumphant is also too Victorian for most people's taste today: Love is about to fly to heaven leaving death and a corpse recumbent on the ground. Two thoughts come to mind; what will the twenty-second century think of our fashionable ideas and concepts? And have we lost something — the ability to respond imagery depicting the deeper themes governing life and death? If we have, are also missing out on the insights they could give us?
Hope. [Click on thumbnail for larger image.]
Hope, the most famous of Watts's idea pictures, was hanged in a special room in the Tate during the Great War because so many people then needed consolation, and Watts provided it. (It was also the biggest selling print of its day, though not of all time — that, presumably, is the iconic Che Guevara.) Hope is shown slumped in despair on top of the globe, blindfolded, with a lyre with only one unbroken string. Somebody told Watts — what is obvious — that she looks more like Despair. His answer is not too convincing. Perhaps she should be called Faith — what's left when all earthly hope has gone. She can seem repellently Victorian and it is easy to deride; but she is a human cry for comfort and no age can be free of that.
But one idea-picture, I think, still works today although for reasons Watts never intended. A Parasite is a tall and narrow painting. Against a background of a cloudy blue sky and a wood-filled hollow two trees dominate the foreground. Vivid green poisonous-ivy leaves follow the ivy's snake-like trunk as it grips the living tree. Is it winter or is the neighbouring tree dead? The ivy, it has been suggested, stands for those drones with unearned incomes whom Watts thought of as parasites squeezing the life out of the country. Some, today, call that the Cake Fallacy; it assumes there is a fixed amount of wealth in society and if one person takes too big a slice, others will go hungry. In reality, as the twentieth went on to prove, people bake bigger cakes. It's not so much a concept picture as a picture of a misconception. All the same, Watts has unwittingly painted an idea which we can appreciate. It is deeply sinister, portraying unanchored anxiety, worry and fear over nothing. It shows we fret and are fearful over what is harmless to us, while we let what is harmful build up destructively elsewhere. It also conveys unfocused unease and foreboding and such has an emotional impact, one of the aims (surely) of all art?
- Painting the Invisible: the Landscapes of George Frederic Watts
- The Portrait Paintings of George Frederic Watts
Underwood, Hilary, and Richard Jefferies, The Watts Gallery Compton: A Visitor's Companion, Compton: The Watts Gallery, 2004.
Last modified 16 October 2006