Summary

'Sic Transit' was among those works that Watts presented to the Nation in 1897 and which are now held at Tate. They were described as 'pictures of thought and ethics, and ... of elementary metaphysics' by a critic of the day (M.H. Spielmann, 'Mr George Frederick Watts, R.A.', Magazine of Art, 1896, p.210). The metaphysical, or the meaning and purpose of human existence, a prevalent theme of Watts's work, is of particular relevance to 'Sic Transit'. The title is from the Latin expression sic transit gloria mundi, meaning 'so passes the glory of the world', but Watts declined from using the full expression because, according to Mary Watts: 'His intention in the picture was not so much the passing of the glory of the world but rather the end of all human existence' (Watts, p.197). The canvas itself, which is wide and very long in the manner of a frieze, lends the painting a monumental quality befitting the grave nature of the subject.

Prior to execution, the canvas was prepared with plaster of Paris, which gave it the rough, fresco-like texture upon which Watts liked to paint. Watts's biographer described the painting as having 'in its texture much of the quality of pastel, with the suggestion of more weight and solemnity' (Mrs Russell Barrington, G.F. Watts: Reminiscences, London 1905, p.164).

A dark-coloured curtain provides the backdrop to the composition and is inscribed in gold along the length of the canvas with an expression alluding to the futility of wealth: 'What I spent | I had, | What I saved, | I lost, | What I gave, | I have'. Watts's treatment of death draws on a number of precedents in art. The critic Richard Dorment has compared the recumbent, shrouded figure in 'Sic Transit' with the representation in tomb sculpture of the 'transi'; 'the shrouded or decomposing corpse stripped of all signs of earthly gain or glory' (Dorment, p.48). Watts engages also with the vanitas theme in his depiction of a number of worldly attributes that are left behind in death. The ermine, alluding to the robes of state, denotes wealth and power; the lute and book refer to the Arts; the laurel crown and goblet to fame and high living and the armour, spear and gauntlet to victory in war.

Further reading:
Andrew Wilton and Robert Upstone (eds), The Age of Rossetti, Burne-Jones & Watts: Symbolism in Britain 1860-1910, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1997, pp.269-70, no.126, reproduced p.269 in colour.
Richard Dorment, Richard Ormond, Allen Staley et al, Victorian High Renaissance, exhibition catalogue, Manchester City Art Gallery, Manchester 1978, pp.48-9, reproduced p.49, figure 24.
M.S. Watts, George Frederic Watts: The Annals of an Artist's Life, London 1912, II, pp.189-90, 197-200.

Rebecca Virag
May 2001