The G F Watts Exhibition, 1884-1885

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Posted 14th May 2019

The G F Watts Exhibition, 1884-1885

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

In 1884-1885, G F Watts, at the time Britain's most famous painter, became the first living artist to stage a solo exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

The exhibition was curated by Mary Gertrude Mead, who, in her early 30s, would later go on to manage the artistic career of her husband, the American painter, Edwin Austin Abbey.

Mead knew of Watts's reputation as a great symbolist and portraitist, having first seen his work on display at the 1883 Exposition Internationale de Peinture in Paris. The two met at the Paris exhibition and became close friends thereafter, with Mead offering much encouragement and facilitating Watts's first exhibition in the US.

Watts agreed to the Met exhibition in part because he hoped it would contribute to America becoming a culturally rich nation. During the show's preparation though, Watts expressed concerns that his exhibition would not be as successful as his friend Mead hoped. Aged 67 and too ill to travel to New York to oversee the show's installation, he instead gave his time to supervising production of the exhibition's catalogue, careful to include a statement outlining his 'hesitancy to comply with the request [to participate in the exhibition]'.

This chimes with Watts's great effort to cultivate a modest public persona over the course of his career: 'I do greatly wish', he wrote to Mead, 'that it may be understood that I should never have had the presumption to suggest offering my [paintings] for exhibition in America, I do but what I am asked to do'.

Chloe Ward, in her article on the Met exhibition, argues that Watts sought out the fame that came with his success - that he 'considered lasting fame to be the highest reward for moral achievements'.

In the end, the exhibition at the Met attracted an astounding one million visitors, and, by the end of 1885, Watts was internationally recognised as 'the greatest painter since the old masters'.

More than any other, it was this exhibition that cemented Watts's reputation on the world stage. Originally staged from November 1884 to the spring of 1885, the show was later extended by another 6 months, allowing for the monumental number of visitors - a figure made more remarkable when compared to New York City's population at the time: just over 1.2 million people.

Information presented here is taken from: Chloe Ward, 'England's Michelangelo in the Metropolitan Museum of Art: The G. F. Watts Exhibition, 1884-1885', Comparative American Studies An International Journal.

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