G F Watts: the Victorian painter who inspired Obama

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Posted 13th March 2017

Excerpt from Kathryn Hughes article in the Guardian (Friday 10 March 2017)

The great Victorians who made our modern world are in the process of turning 200. Dickens, Darwin and Charlotte Brontë all recently celebrated their landmark birthdays while younger peers – George Eliot, Florence Nightingale and Queen Victoria herself – are getting ready for their big day. Last month it was the turn of the artist GF Watts to blow out the candles and contemplate two centuries of being feted and ignored in equal measure.

Watts, though, is a bit different from his fellow bicentenarians. While his name disappeared from public consciousness during a long stretch of the 20th century, his best known work has continued to resonate at high frequency. Take Hope, a large oil painting he made in 1886 and presented to the nation 11 years later. The image of a weary, blindfolded figure resolutely plucking at the remaining string of her battered lyre while perched on a ruined globe might not to be to everyone's taste, but its easily readable symbolism made it fit for repurpose. Martin Luther King based a sermon on the painting in 1959, as did Jeremiah Wright a generation later. Among Wright's Chicago congregation in 1990 was a young Barack Obama who took the image and ran with it, making The Audacity of Hope the title of both his rousing address to the Democratic Convention in 2004 and the bestselling manifesto he published two years later.

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