George Frederic Watts OM RA (1817-1904)
In his own lifetime George Frederic Watts (1817-1904), was widely considered to be the greatest painter of the Victorian age, enjoying an unparalleled reputation. His ceaseless experimentation embodied the most pressing themes and ideas of the time. A complex figure, Watts was the finest and most penetrating portraitist of his age, a sculptor, landscape painter and symbolist which earned him the title ‘England’s Michelangelo.’
His fame and renown was not limited to Britain and in 1884 he was the first living artist to have a solo exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, a show so enormously successful that it led to a longer run and a gift of his great work, Love and Life to the American people. His works also found great favour in Europe winning gold medals at the Paris Universal Exhibitions in 1878 and 1889. His influence among symbolists was profound and can be seen in the works of Gustave Moreau and Fernand Knopff.
The work of G F Watts is of seminal importance in understanding the Victorian period because he was one of its most notable artistic innovators. Watts’s own refusal to become part of any painting movement coupled with the reaction of early twentieth century critics to all things Victorian left his reputation a little tarnished. Ironically, that outspoken critic of Victorian painting, Roger Fry, considered Watts an exception. Fry recognized his great importance within the British School, as shown by his visits with his students to theWatts Picture Gallery. Until the late 1930s, the Tate Gallery had a Watts room which exclusively showed the work of the artist. The legacy of his Hall of Fame portraits form a major part of the National Portrait Gallery’s nineteenthcentury holdings and the Tate Gallery’s huge collection are a tribute to his importance.