Exhibition catalogue text

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


126 'Sic Transit' 1890-2

Oil on canvas 102.9 x 204.5 (40 1/2 x 80 1/2) Inscribed 'WHAT I SPENT, | I HAD, | WHAT I SAVED, | I LOST, | WHAT I GAVE, | I HAVE,' on the curtain in the background along the top edge; 'G.F. Watts 1892' lower left
Prov: As no.49
Exh: Munich 1893 (1648); St Jude's, Whitechapel 1894 (31); Rugby School 1894*; New Gallery 1896 (139); Glasgow 1896*; Edinburgh 1896*; Whitechapel 1974 (45). *Exh. refs. in MS. Cat.
Lit: Macmillan 1903, pp.254-7; Barrington 1905, pp.38, 40, 164-5, 177; MS. Cat., I, p.133; Watts 1912, II, pp.189-90, 197-9; Richard Dorment, in Manchester 1978, pp.48-9, fig.24

Tate Gallery. Presented by the artist 1897

Watts began work on 'Sic Transit' in 1891 after an illness, and the imagery may well reflect an even greater involvement with his long-standing preoccupation with death. Death is not personified (see nos.51, 123), rather the idea is presented in a recumbent, shrouded figure with all the accessories of worldly success lying uselessly beside the bier. The stark contrast between the simplicity of the dead figure in its grey-white shroud and the accumulation of beautiful, glittering objects points up the meaning of the picture.

Watts's title comes from the well-known Latin tag 'sic transit gloria mundi', meaning 'so passes the glory of the world'. The painting comments 'not so much on the passing of the glory of the world but rather the end of all human existence' (Watts 1912, II, p.199). When a preacher focused on 'Sic Transit' for a sermon, commenting on the man in the shroud, Watts considered this a misreading for he saw 'the shrouded figure as the symbol of human life ended, and with all its possibilities laid away' (Watts 1912, II, p.200).

The unusual device of inscribing words along the upper edge of the picture, on a curtain behind the shroud, attracts attention. The artist turned to a favourite saying, according to Mrs Barrington (1905, p.177), which was said to be an old German proverb (Macmillan 1903, p.254), alluding to the futility of accumulating wealth and possessions, a theme that Watts took up in Mammon (no.52). But it seems the actual phrase also had a distinctly English connotation as the epitaph of Edward Courtney, Earl of Devonshire (d.1419) and his wife, at Tiverton: 'What wee gave, wee have | What wee spent, wee had | What wee kept, wee lost' (The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, 4th ed., Oxford and New York 1993, p.19). A variant found its way into The Shepherd's Calendar by Edmund Spenser, a writer whose work was familiar to the artist. In the preface to the catalogue of his retrospective at the New Gallery, Watts singled out 'Sic Transit' as 'an illustration of the noble medieval inscription'. In also referring to it as the 'epitaph picture', he directly alluded to the connotations of his chosen text.

Watts carried out this painting as a fully formed idea, new to his thinking around 1890, with few preparatory or related works. The unusually textured canvas received special preparation with plaster of Paris, and was then soaked in water to 'remove all lime'. For the figure, he made 'a little study in gesso', presumably to study the effects of the drapery (see no.50 for the use of sculptural maquettes). He also drew several studies of a medieval helmet, beautiful for its patina and curving lines. This helmet belonged to the famous collection of armour owned by Baron de Cosson, lent (and eventually bequeathed) to the Victoria and Albert Museum.

The silvery grey tonality of the picture demonstrates Mrs Barrington's assertion (1905, pp.163-4) that it showed Watts's interest in colours and textures with the softness of pastel.

While planning 'Sic Transit' in 1890, Watts received a visit from Queen Elizabeth of Roumania (1843-1916) whose writings, under the nom-de-plume Carmen Sylva, he admired. She enjoyed fame throughout Europe as a woman of letters, specialising in philosophical aphorisms best known through her Pens?es d'une reine (1882) which went through many editions and translations (including an English one in 1890, the year she met Watts). Her biography records that meeting, when Watts 'could not make enough of her' (Burgoyne 1941, p.159). One only has to read Pens?es to see why they got on so well: one of these aphorisms is 'Man is a violin. It is not until his last string has snapped that he becomes a piece of work' which has obvious parallels with Hope.

In 'Sic Transit', the visual imagery derives from two relevant areas: funerary sculpture with its focus on death and the vanitas still-life with its focus on the fragility of man and the transience of life and beauty. Watts made overt reference, as Richard Dorment has shown, to the idea of the transi, a sculpted version of a shrouded body common in late Gothic art and carried into the nineteenth century in the famous memorial to General Cavaignac (1847) by Fran?ois Rude in the Cimeti?re Montmartre. Watts's transi, painted on canvas, has an undeniable evocative power as an uncompromising symbol of death.

The vanitas theme also had a particular application in 'Sic Transit' as a way of harnessing an array of associations with each object revealing some aspect of life that has come to an abrupt end: ermine fur with connotations of royalty and wealth; armour, spear and gauntlet for success in war; the lute and books for the contemplative pursuits of music and learning; the goblet for high living; the laurel crown for fame; cut flowers soon to wither and die; and a scallop shell, emblematic of the pilgrim on his travels. A bunch of peacock feathers assume prominence in the foreground, not as Aesthetic accessories, but as the traditional Christian symbol for immortality and resurrection. The strangely hovering letters of the inscription lend it a distinctly Symbolist mood.

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.269-70 no.126, reproduced in colour p.269