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George Frederic Watts

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George Frederic Watts


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At his death in 1904, George Frederic Watts was the most celebrated artist in Britain. An acclaimed portraitist, a distinguished history painter, the creator of powerful, massive sculptures, and a mystical, symbolist visionary, Watts was hailed as "England's Michelangelo". Yet in the twentieth century his critical reputation fell away, and his bold, often brilliant work is only now being rediscovered.

Produced alongside centenary exhibitions at Tate and the National Portrait Gallery, this film explores the artist's works and remarkable life. Some of his most striking portraits are of the dazzling actress Ellen Terry, to whom the middle-aged Watts was briefly married when she was 17.

Curators Alison Smith and Barbara Bryant and biographer Veronica Franklin Gould discuss the beauty and diversity of Watts' work, and the challenges it can pose for viewers today. The film also visits, with curator Richard Jefferies, the charmingly eccentric Watts Gallery at Compton in the Surrey countryside, which is the first purpose-built museum in Britain dedicated to the work of a single artist.

2004, 50 mins.

"I paint ideas, not things. My intention is less to paint works that are pleasing to the eye than to suggest great thoughts which will speak to the imagination and the heart and will arouse all that is noblest and best in man."

George Frederic Watts was a visionary force with a paintbrush and a powerful persona as a man. Following an extended and inspirational trip to Italy, he took to wearing Renaissancerobes on a daily basis. Indeed always unusual, he revealed an early interest in the unconscious mind by preferring to depict his subjects with their eyes closed. In style, he moved organically from Symbolism to abstraction whilst other artists remained far from this point. Overall, Watts was drawn to a cosmic synthesis of all things and as such deals in recurring notions and allegorical renderings of human strength and folly, never to be distracted by the fashions and expectations of the Victorian Age. 

Indeed, his art straddles two worlds, that of Victorian romantic and nationalist symbolism, and that of a modernist insistence on digging to the depths and following the individual psyche. To privilege ideas and internal feelings during this era was rare, as was foreseeing the dehumanizing effects of commercialism. Indeed, a character in one of the artist's paintings, Mammon, is born as the monster to herald the absolute emotional disaster of the beginnings of a highly industrialized and capitalist society. Not only a painter, it is one of Watts' sculptures that well embodies his own character and ambition - a man on horseback looking out to the horizon with his hand to his forehead - he was an idealistic dreamer with an unwavering belief in humanity's inclination towards betterment.

From: The Art Story

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