The 1860s proved to be a decade of change for Watts: he came into the public eye, received universally good critical notices and set an example for the rising younger generation of artists in the circle of Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
The artist's finances were also on a better footing, meaning he could paint to sell without commissions. He began devoting more time to sculpture both as an aid to composing and in its own right.
Watts cultivated a distinctive line in portraits and decorative studies of women in a new poetic spirit. His friend, dramatist and critic Tom Taylor, introduced two young actresses to Watts: Kate Terry (1844-1924) and her younger sister Ellen (1847-1928). Enamoured of Ellen's looks and considering her potential as a stimulus to his art, Watts planned initially to adopt her, but then decided to marry her, even though he was considerably older. Still very young and impressionable, Ellen noted in her memoirs that 'the stage seemed a poor place compared with the wonderful studio.' They married on 20 February 1864, with Watts turning 47 and Ellen just 17. A series of remarkable paintings by Watts display her inherent dramatic abilities. The ill-fated marriage broke down in less than a year, and after a legal separation instigated by Watts, Ellen was sent back to her parents. Her impact on his art lasted longer, as he returned to unfinished paintings of her for years after.