Don't miss G F Watts: England's Michelangelo — open now

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Posted 26th June 2017

George Frederic Watts (1817-1904) was one of the most original artists of the nineteenth century. An accomplished painter, sculptor, draughtsman and creator of vast murals, he became known in his own time as 'England's Michelangelo'. The term suggests an artist of range, depth and intensity.

Born in London, Watts was a highly ambitious young man, and he spent several years in Italy during the 1840s studying the art of the Renaissance. For the rest of his long career, he aimed to emulate both the magnificent forms of Classical Antiquity and the sumptuous colours of the Italian masters.

At the same time, Watts strongly felt that art had the capacity to change people's lives in modern Britain, and that his own work might have an important role in helping society move forwards. Fundamentally, he believed that his message of hope, progress and evolution was relevant to everyone.

Early in his career, the artist responded to press reports about the plight of the poor by painting angry scenes of realism such as Found Drowned (c. 1848-50, Watts Gallery Trust). He also sought to place his pictures where they might have an impact beyond the art-world: The Good Samaritan (1850, Manchester Art Gallery), for example, was presented to Manchester Town Hall in honour of a local prison reformer, while a mosaic version of Time, Death and Judgement (late 1870s-1896, St Paul's Cathedral) was placed on public view in London's East End. Over time, Watts came to be seen as a type of painter-prophet.

As well as commenting on the state of society through the medium of his art, Watts often reinterpreted stories from the past so that they might speak to those in the present, as in his Eve triptych (from 1868, Watts Gallery Trust and Tate), The Death of Cain (c. 1872-75, Royal Academy of Arts) and Prometheus (1857-1904, Watts Gallery Trust). Yet perhaps his most powerful symbolic works are strikingly bold, cosmic visions such as Hope (1886, Private Collection) The All-Pervading (1887-96, Tate) and The Sower of the Systems (1902, Art Gallery of Ontario). By giving human form to universal — for instance in Love and Life (1884, Private Collection) or Love and Death (c. 1874-87, The Whitworth Art Gallery) — he hoped to make them more relatable. Taken together, this avant-garde imagery reveals the artist's enduring quest to find a visual language to express his sense of human progress being bound up in the unfolding of the universe.

It was through portraiture that Watts was able to capture the spirit of his times. From youth into old age, the artist painted likenesses of himself, his friends and his famous contemporaries. Upheld as portraitist to the nation, he invited influential figures – including the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne, the artist Frederic Leighton and the Catholic leader Cardinal Manning – to join his illustrious Hall of Fame.

Equally as compelling are his portraits of women, such as his charismatic first wife, the great actress Ellen Terry, the authoress Marie Fox (Princess Liechtenstein), and Jeanie Senior — Britain's first female civil servant — whose pioneering social reforms inspired the artist to make use of his own celebrity to support philanthropic causes. Eventually it was said that 'the world begged' to sit for Watts.

G F Watts: England's Michelangelo brings together many of Watts's most celebrated works including his cosmic imagery, protest paintings and dramatic portraits. See this unique one-off exhibition at Watts Gallery until 26 November.

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