george frederic watts Left: Woman and Child, Watts. Right: Botticelli, The Birth of Venus
8 min

Between Rubens And Rossetti: The Art Of George Frederic Watts

8 min

George Frederic Watts (1817-1904) was a British painter and sculptor famous for his symbolist works. Despite his own notion that he painted ideas, not things, many of his images are quite sensuous. The combination of natural talent for arts and different sources of inspiration made Watts' artistic world curious to reflect upon.

 George Frederic Watts self portrait

Fig. 1. Self-Portrait, 1864 (

 George Frederic Watts Love and Life

Fig. 2. Love and Life (

 George Frederic Watts Life’s Illusions

Fig. 3. Life’s Illusions (

 George Frederic Watts The Wife of Pluto

Fig. 4. The Wife of Pluto (

 George Frederic Watts Clytie

Fig. 5. Clytie (

 George Frederic Watts Daphne’s Bath

Fig. 6. Daphne’s Bath (

Handel, Michelangelo, And Titian

Watts originated from a family of a poor piano-maker who named his son after George Handel, as Watts was born on the birthday of the German composer. His mother died when he was still a kid, so the father alone was responsible for shaping his personality and recognizing his talents. It’s the father who introduced to him Greek mythology and Christianity, which would become main topics of the artist. Watts started sculpting at the age of 10. Eight years later, he enrolled in the Royal Academy. At the age of 20, he first exhibited. In 1843, he won a prize in a competition of murals for the new Houses of Parliament at Westminster. It allowed him to visit Italy and study Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel and Giotto's Scrovegni Chapel. When Watts returned to London, his experience resulted in producing a fresco inspired by Raphael on the upper part of the east wall of the Great Hall of Lincoln's Inn. In 1853, he took another short trip to Italy, where Titian became another source of his inspiration. Later, Watts took part in the Halicarnassus excavation traveling through Constantinople and the Greek islands. 

 George Frederic Watts Choosing

Fig. 7. Choosing (

From Raphael To Pre-Raphaelites

Considering Watts' interest in Italian masters, it's curious to watch his shift to Rossetti, a founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, opposing academic art with its' Italian roots. The most impressive example of Pre-Raphaelite influence is a portrait of young actress Ellen Terry, his 17-year-old wife, whom he proposed being 30 years senior. Ellen couldn't manage the attitude of the Watts circle, so their marriage lasted only ten months. The picture entitled Choosing demonstrates Ellen smelling camellias and violets. The former symbolize earthy vanities (good-looking but scentless), the latter - virtues (humble but with an elegant smell). 

 Rossetti, Proserpine

Fig. 8. Rossetti, Proserpine, 1874 (

Scents And Serpents

As known, the Pre-Raphaelites frequently used religious themes in their works, e. g. Annunciation by Rossetti. At the same time, their adherence to religion didn't exclude the persistent presence of flowers, colors, fruits, and scents in their pictures. Pre-Raphaelite heroines are surrounded by things they can smell and taste, as well as Virgin Mary, who is greeted with lilies. Scents can be associated with spirituality and accumulate symbolic meanings, but they also may embody temptation through a recurring motif of a poisoned fruit eaten by a naive beauty (we can see it in Rossetti's Proserpine, who tasted a pomegranate and was bound to come back to her husband). 

 George Frederic Watts Eve Tempted

Fig. 9. Eve Tempted (

Eve Tempted And Repentant

Being influenced by Raphaelites and Pre-Raphaelites, using the manner of Rubens and Titian, George Watts produced an eye-catching triptych of the fall of Eve. Her nude figure can be regarded as a reference to "Raphaelites" who paid a lot of attention to the human body. What makes this work truly amazing is a part influenced by Pre-Raphaelites - the quite sensual act of smelling the forbidden fruit. As Eve was an ancestor of all Pre-Raphaelite beauties tasting the fruits, George Watts seems to produce a Pre-Pre-Raphaelite picture, an archetypical image containing not only Rossetti's esthetics but the academic influence as well. 

 Eve Tempted George Frederic Watts

Fig. 10. Eve Tempted (

 George Frederic Watts Eve Repentant

Fig. 11. Eve Repentant (

 George Frederic WattsEve Created,

Fig. 12. Eve Created, study (

 George Frederic Watts She Shall Be Called Woman

Fig. 13. She Shall Be Called Woman (

 george frederic watts Artemis

Fig. 14. Artemis (

 george frederic watts Aurora

Fig. 15. Aurora (

 george frederic watts a Greek idyll

Fig. 16. A Greek Idyll (

 george frederic watts A Bacchante

Fig. 17. A Bacchante (

 george frederic watts Fata Morgana

Fig. 18. Fata Morgana (

 george frederic watts Orlando Pursuing Fata Morgana

Fig. 19. Orlando Pursuing Fata Morgana (

 george frederic watts  Echo

Fig. 20. Echo (

 george frederic watts Psyche

Fig. 21. Psyche (

george frederic watts Paolo and Francesca 

Fig. 22. Paolo and Francesca (

 george frederic watts Thetis

Fig. 23. Thetis (

 george frederic watts Rhodopis

Fig. 24. Rhodopis (

 george frederic watts Diana’s Nymphs

Fig. 25. Diana’s Nymphs (

 george frederic watts Nude study

Fig. 26. Nude study (

 george frederic watts Nude with a Fan

Fig. 27. Nude with a Fan (

 george frederic watts Thetis

Fig. 28. Thetis (

 george frederic watts george frederic watts Thetis

Fig. 29. Lady Godiva (

 george frederic watts Woman and Child

Fig. 30. Woman and Child ( Curiously, the figure of woman resembles Venus of Botticelli, so, in this context, the kid turns into a little cupid.

 george frederic watts Left: Woman and Child, Watts. Right: Botticelli, The Birth of Venus

Fig. 31. Left: Woman and Child, Watts. Right: Botticelli, The Birth of Venus

  george frederic watts Good Luck To Your Fishing

Fig. 32. Good Luck To Your Fishing (


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