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Posted 7th September 2017

The second major theme of G F Watts: England's Michelangelo is Cosmos. This exhibition explores G F Watts's vision of human progress being bound up in the unfolding of the universe — ideas often personified in his paintings, three of which are profiled here.

The Sower of the Systems (1902, Art Gallery of Ontario)

Watts had been greatly moved to see early long-distance photographs of faraway solar systems, and with this work, he alludes to an ancient fascination with stargazing while sharing his own unique vision of the creation of the cosmos.

Showing a robed, faceless figure sweeping across space and radiating arcs of gold to form galaxies, this ambitious work reveals the artist's quest to paint what Mary Watts termed 'the unpaintable subject.' The painting was completed just two years before his death.

Hope (1886, Private Collection)

Perhaps Watts's most famous painting, Hope depicts an abstraction personified as a young woman sitting blindfolded upon a globe. Lost in the universe, she huddles painfully over her lyre, of which only a single string remains unbroken, while a single star hovers in the vast sky above her.

Watts's message — that hope survives against all odds — has had enormous resonance with many people since this picture was first exhibited. The image has given strength to those down on their luck, and courage to those uncertain of their cause. President Obama is a famous example: he was inspired to enter politics after hearing a sermon based on an account of the painting.

The All-Pervading (1887-96, Tate)

The idea for this composition came to Watts as a sudden vision while he was observing the play of light from a glass chandelier in a hotel room in Malta. In this painting, an androgynous draped and winged figure cradles a globe in its lap, across which is also laid a scroll. The figure seems to represent a benevolent spirit overseeing the cosmos and recording its progress.

Although not conventionally religious, Watts believed in a hidden meaning to the universe and was fascinated by its mysteries. The figure is cocooned within the elliptical shape or mandorla used in Christian art to signal a moment of heavenly revelation.

G F Watts: England's Michelangelo runs at Watts Gallery until 26 November. Book admission tickets online now.