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George Frederic Watts was the most internationally revered artist in Europe at the end of the nineteenth century. French and Belgian Symbolistes were deeply influenced by his intense and innovative vision. In Britain, his public status was, as it was amongst his peers, almost God-like.

Watts was, as the caricaturist of Vanity Fair put it, a painter of 'portraits and ideas.' His career as a painter and sculptor spanned Queen Victoria's long reign and his output is extremely varied, ranging from late Regency portraits and Landseer-like animal studies to evocative and almost abstract symbolic subjects.

His first ambition was to become a History painter in the grand style and on a grand scale. In 1843 he won a three hundred pound prize in the first Westminster Hall composition for the decoration of the new Houses of Parliament with Caractacus led in Triumph though the Streets of Rome (fragments in the Victoria and Albert Museum). This enabled him to travel to Italy where he remained until 1847. After his return he became the house guest of Mrs Prinsep (He came to stay three days, he stayed thirty years, she wrote) and encouraged her son Val to become an artist. Around 1860 he was close to the artists of the Pre-Raphaelite movement and was influenced by their style and aims, for instance in Sir Galahad (exhibited Royal Academy 1862, Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts). He became a close friend of Edward Burne-Jones in 1857 and two of his pupils, John Roddam Spencer Stanhope and Val Prinsep, assisted in the decoration of the Oxford Union building in the same year.

In the 1860s, Watts also became a close friend of Frederic Leighton, and with him was a key figure in the revival of classicism in that decade. It was a period of growing artistic fame and in 1867 Watts was elected both Associate of the Royal Academy and Academician, but it was also a time of personal unhappiness. In 1864 he married the teenaged actress Ellen Terry, but they separated in less than a year. His second marriage, contracted in 1886 to a woman thirty-three years younger than he, was very successful. His wife's three volume biography, Annals of an Artist's Life was published by Macmillan in 1912.

Watts's great fame developed in the 1880s, when he gained the reputation of 'England's painter-philosopher'. His moral allegories, of which Hope (exhibited Grosvenor Gallery 1886, Private collection; another version presented by the artist to the Tate Gallery, and two other versions) is the best known, became very popular. Many one man exhibitions of his work were held, including the Winter exhibition at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1881-1882 and a major exhibition held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York in 1884. In 1895 he presented a large collection of his paintings of eminent Victorians to the National Portrait Gallery and in 1897 a group of subject paintings, including Hope, to the newly-founded Tate Gallery.

In 1884 and 1894 he refused a baronetcy, but accepted the Order of Merit when it was instituted in 1902. A memorial museum of his work is at Compton near Guildford. A Selection of his work was exhibited in Victorian High Renaissance (City Art Gallery, Manchester, Minneapolis Institute of Arts and Brooklyn Museum, 1978-1979) and Wilfrid Blunt's biography, England's Michelangelo (1975), has recently been re-issued in paperback. In the current exhibition at the Tate Gallery (1997-8), The Age of Rossetti, Burne-Jones and Watts; Symbolism in Britain, the enormous power of his work can at last be seen.

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Renowned as one of the great portrait painters of the later Victorian era, Watts was also active as a sculptor. In his day he won the nickname of ...
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Will You Be My Valentine?
Watts was born in London and where he entered the Royal Academy Schools in 1835, exhibiting his first painting at the Royal Academy, The Wounded He...
Sarah Colegrave