Object of the Month: The Sower of the Systems, 1902

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Posted 26th July 2017

by Dr Beatrice Bertram

Showing a robed, faceless figure sweeping across space and radiating arcs of gold to form galaxies, The Sower of the Systems (1902, Art Gallery of Ontario) is one of Watts's most intriguing and compelling paintings. We're delighted to be able to welcome this cosmic canvas back to its former home for the first time in over a century, where it is currently starring in our G F Watts: England's Michelangelo exhibition.

Completed just two years before his death, this extraordinarily ambitious work reveals Watts's quest to depict what his wife Mary termed 'the unpaintable subject'. Having struggled to fashion his conception of the Creator, the artist was influenced by alternative thinking: 'like the child's design, who, being asked by his little sister to draw God, made a great number of circular scribbles, and putting his paper on a soft surface, struck his pencil through the centre, making a great void.' Conceding that this would be 'utterly absurd' in pictorial terms, he still felt there was 'a greater idea in it than in Michael Angelo's old man with a long beard.'

Fascinated by the latest astronomical advances, Watts had been especially struck by seeing early long-distance photographs of remote solar systems. Inspired by the casual observation of light dancing across his ceiling at night, the work's surface is punctuated by vigorous streaks, splashes and dabs of paint, lending it an element of dynamism.

Strikingly original, and hovering on the brink of abstraction, the piece impressed contemporary critics with its modernity. On 2 May 1903, The Athenaeum declared: 'is there living in the whole world a single artist who could be trusted to paint a worthy companion to it? Certainly there is not. The gift of expressing the majestic sweep of that mysterious figure is as much Mr. Watts's sole possession as the gorgeous quality of the colour.'