Exhibition catalogue text

Catalogue entry from The Age of Rossetti, Burne-Jones & Watts: Symbolism in Britain 1860-1910


49 Chaos c.1873-82, reworked later

Oil on canvas 106.7 x 304.8 (42 x 120)
Prov: Collection of the artist (on view at the Little Holland House Gallery); given to the Tate Gallery as part of the Watts Gift 1897
Exh: Alpine Club 1894 (50); New Gallery 1896 (148)
Lit: Spielmann 1886, p.4 and list p.30 as 'large picture in the collection of the artist'; Macmillan 1903, pp.193-4; Barrington 1905, pp.93, 131-2; MS. Cat. I, p.25; Watts 1912, I, pp.101-2, 105, 275, 301-3; II, p.105; Staley 1978, no.23 (Watts Gallery version)

Tate Gallery. Presented by the artist 1897

The sprawling composition of Chaos shows scenes in which turmoil contrasts with graceful movement and comparative calm. Reading the long horizontal progression from the left, the observer is first plunged into cataclysmic activity. Faceless giants battle with the forces of nature against the background of a raging fire. The contortions of the nude figures echo the upheaval of the land masses and rocky outcrops. This fragmentation of the earth's surface gives way, in the middle of the composition, to a watery setting beyond which are distant mountains bathed in light. A lone figure pushes himself upward from the sea; no longer fighting, he seems to suggest survival. In the third phase of the composition, a chain of female figures fly across the space while above a group of massive giants rest on an elevated plain removed from the realm of action to a more contemplative zone.

The ideas behind Chaos date from the years around 1850 when Watts formulated one of his grandest conceptions: to paint a series of murals representing 'the progress of cosmos', which he also considered as a 'history of the world' (on this project, eventually called The House of Life, see Staley 1978, pp.80-1). The first finished composition, The Titans, painted during the 1860s, showed just the right portion of Chaos; by the early 1870s, Watts had worked on the expanded design which included what we see in the long horizontal format of the small study in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, the large unfinished oil in the Watts Gallery, Compton, and this finished version (as well as the later, smaller, finished work in the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool; see Morris 1996, pp.466-7), all of which are essentially the same in conception. The version in the Watts Gallery he left unfinished on the advice of his friends and fellow artists Burne-Jones and Leighton. Around 1873, he began no.49, which was probably laid in by his young studio assistant, Matthew Ridley Corbet (1850-1902), later a landscape painter. From the mid-1880s onward, finished large versions of Chaos appeared at public exhibitions, though it is not clear which version went to New York. It was, however, probably the Tate's painting which Watts sent to the Alpine Club's exhibition in 1894, at a time when he was readying this version for his planned bequest. Interestingly, in this context, the painting was seen as 'an example of the place of mountains in the poetry of art'.

In the long course of the evolution of the composition, Watts used a series of plaster maquettes to study the vigorous poses of the key figures (see no.50). A recent cleaning of Chaos has revealed much more of the vivid colour and handling, ranging from passages of great delicacy to broader, eye-catching areas of paint applied with the palette knife.

Although one can deduce much from the action depicted in Chaos, a clearer understanding of Watts's intentions is available from his comments on the subject, and those of writers with whom he was in close contact. Watts wrote that Chaos was 'intended to be the introductory chapter of a general history of mankind'. In 1884, the catalogue for the exhibition in New York contained an extended description (reprinted in Barrington 1905, pp.131-3 and Staley 1978, p.81) which identifies the upheaval of the earliest moments of 'our planet' passing to a 'vaporous uncertainty of atmosphere, of unborn creatures' until the figure emerging from the 'swollen tides marks the beginning of the strides of time'. The final section shows 'colossal forms ... symbols of mountain ranges' with the chain of flying figures showing the now 'continuous stream' of time. According to Mrs Watts, Watts preferred the title Chaos Passing to Cosmos, as more indicative of his real meaning. Here indeed Watts created what might almost be looked upon as a Darwinian landscape, with the stages in pre-history visualised, not by a scientist, but an artist. Indeed, Chaos becomes an even more powerful statement when seen as a landscape of evolution, filled with cataclysm and eventual calm.

By the 1890s, when Watts's work could be seen in the new context of Symbolism, he himself seems to have refined his thoughts on Chaos. In the catalogue for the retrospective at the New Gallery in 1896, immediately prior to his bequest to the nation, he explained: 'The intention of this picture is to convey in the language of symbol an idea of the passing of our planet from chaos to order'. Observers of the 1890s may well have been more open to the conjunction of the contrasting imagery of the apocalyptic horror of chaos with the heavenly calm of flowing time.

Barbara Bryant

Published in:
Andrew Wilton, Robert Upstone, and others, The Age of Rossetti, Burne-Jones & Watts: Symbolism in Britain 1860-1910, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1997, pp.164-5 no.49, reproduced in colour p.164