On Abandoment and Disappointed Love

d4051821r(c) Watts Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

 

George Frederic Watts first painted the story of Orpheus and Eurydice in the late 1860s. This decade saw a revival of classical subject matter in British art. It is a measure of Watts’s flexibility as an artist that, in the middle of his career aged about fifty, he should become deeply involved in a new movement in art, sharing the aims of much younger painters such as Frederic Leighton and Edward Burne-Jones. His Orpheus and Eurydice paintings are among the most powerful early masterpieces of this ‘aesthetic classicism.’ As with most subjects that gripped his imagination, Watts treated it several times, refining the composition until it fully realised his ideal.

The story of Orpheus is recounted in many ancient sources. The most accessible account, and probably the one used by Watts, is found in Ovid‘s Metamorphoses (book X).

Three subjects from the story were particularly attractive to artists:

Orpheus playing in hell;
Orpheus’s loss of Eurydice’; and
Orpheus’s head and lyre, which continued to sing after his own death.

In the 1860s Watts treated many themes of abandonment and disappointed love. Clytie whose yearning for the sun god Apollo turned her into a sunflower and Ariadne deserted by Theseus, share similar themes with Orpheus and Eurydice. Watts probably exposed deep personal emotions in such subjects, for his first marriage, to the young actress Ellen Terry, ended in separation in 1865, after they had been together for only eleven months.

But Watts’s impetus was not simply personal for the Orpheus and Eurydice theme was also popular with his closest artistic friends in the 1860s. In Victorian High Renaissance, Allan Staley suggests that Watts took it up in direct response to Frederic Leighton‘s 1864 Royal Academy picture (Leighton House). This is a distinctly odd treatment of the theme in which Orpheus pushes Eurydice away. Watts’s painting may be intended to criticise this version. Leighton became Watts’s near neighbour in Kensington in 1866, and the two men exerted a strong influence on each other for the next six years. In the late 1860s Burne-Jones produced illustrations to William Morris’s unpublished Orpheus and Eurydice poem. (He later re-used them for the 1880 Graham piano, the designs for which inspired John Singer Sargent‘s portrait of Comyns Carr. Watts painted portraits of his friends Burne-Jones and Morris in 1870 (Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery and National Portrait Gallery).

There are many studies for the various versions of the work. Most appear to date from the late 1860s when Watts conceived and developed the subject. Two drawings are in the Royal Academy, London, among the collection selected by Edward John Poynter, as President, under the terms of Watts’s will. A head study for Orpheus is in the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham’s collection (Cecil French Bequest). A drawing for one of the horizontal format compositions is in the collection of David Loshak. Most interesting among the drawn studies is that in the collection of Sir Brinsley Ford. The upper half is very close to the composition of the present picture, but the figures are full length and a third figure (omitted from all known painted versions) appears in the bottom right corner. This emphasises the placing of this version in the sequence of Watts’s paintings between his abandonment of the horizontal format and his development of an upright one. Watts also produced sculptured studies for the figure and head of Orpheus to help him realise the difficult pose of the figure and the tormented expression, both hard for a model to hold. (Two studies, plaster casts from clay or wax originals are in the Watts Gallery, Compton.) Watts’s interest in sculpture developed in the 1860s, when he made both finished works (such as the bust of Clytie) and such studies. The production of sculptural studies for paintings was a Renaissance practice and passed into the academic tradition. The studies and the finished painting reveal Watts’s fascination with dynamic twisting poses and especially with the stretch and turn of the neck. This seems to have been a personal idiosyncracy. Found in many other works of this time (such as Clytie), it should be seen as an aspect of Watts’s enthusiasm for the Renaissance artist that earned him the nickname of ‘England’s Michelangelo.’

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From the Remaining Chord

Hope, George Frederic Watts, 1886

 

Hope is a Symbolist oil painting by George Frederic Watts, two versions of which were completed in 1886. The painting was intended to form part of a series of allegorical paintings by Watts entitled the House of Life. The painting shows a female allegorical figure of Hope. Hope is traditionally identifiable through the attribute of an anchor, but Watts took a more original approach. In his painting, she is depicted sitting on a globe, blindfolded, clutching a wooden lyre with only one string left intact. She sits in a hunched position, with her head leaning towards the instrument, perhaps so she can hear the faint music she can make with the sole remaining string. According to Watts, “Hope need not mean expectancy. It suggests here rather the music which can come from the remaining chord”. The desolate atmosphere is emphasised by Watts’s soft brushwork, creating a misty, ethereal scene, in tones of green, brown and grey. Watts’s melancholy depiction of hope was criticised, and G. K. Chesterton suggested that a better title would be Despair.

 

A Sea Spell (1877)

 

Dreamers (1882)

 

The Wheel of Fortune (1871)

 

Watts may have been inspired by the pose of the siren in Dante Gabriel Rossetti‘s  painting A Sea Spell, or the sleeping women in Albert Joseph Moore‘s painting Dreamers. Watts may have taken inspiration for the blindfold from the allegorical figure of Fortune in Edward Burne-Jones‘s  painting The Wheel of Fortune, which Watts owned. The painting was displayed at the 1897 Manchester Jubilee Exhibition, alongside other works by Watts including Love and Death, The Court of Death, Psyche, and Mount Ararat.

Hope inspired a scene from a 1922 film of the same name by Herbert Blaché and Lejaren à Hiller, featuring Mary Astor as Hope. It has been suggested as an influence on Pablo Picasso‘s early Blue Period paintings, especially the hunched musician in The Old Guitarist. Martin Luther King Jr referenced Hope in his sermon Shattered Dreams in his collection of sermons, Strength to Love. Nelson Mandela reportedly had a print of the painting on the wall of his prison cell on Robben Island. After Egypt was defeated by Israel during the Six-Day War the Egyptian government issued copies of it to its troops.

Song of A Man Who Has Come Through

The Garden of Hesperides, Edward Burne-Jones. c. 1869-73

 
 

Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me !
A fine wind is blowing the new direction of Time.
If only I let it bear me, carry me, if only it carry me!
If only I am sensitive, subtle, oh, delicate, a winged gift!
If only, most lovely of all, I yield myself and am borrowed
By the fine, fine wind that takes its course through the chaos of the world
Like a fine, an exquisite chisel, a wedge-blade inserted;
If only I am keen and hard like the sheer tip of a wedge.
Driven by invisible blows,
The rock will split, we shall come at the wonder, we shall find the Hesperides.
Oh, for the wonder that bubbles into my soul,
I would be a good fountain, a good well-head,
Would blur no whisper, spoil no expression.

D.H. Lawrence

 
 

Collected in Look! We have come through! (1917)