Summary

This mystical figure is one of Watts' most obviously Symbolist works and an example of his fresh, original approach to allegory. A winged female figure fixes us with her intense gaze. A brilliant white star, attached to a delicate fillet, shines at the centre of her forehead. Red wings sprout from her headdress and larger wings rise behind her. She is dressed in a greenish robe trimmed with feathers and at her neck she wears a heart-shaped brooch. On her lap is a row of arrows, but no bow, and she is also guarding a silver trumpet. Watts has enhanced the picture's mystical qualities through the feathery brushstrokes, creating an atmospheric halo of iridescent light, from which the figure appears to emerge.

In 1896, when the picture was exhibited at the New Gallery, Watts provided a catalogue description, which gives some indication of the figure's meaning: 'Conscience, winged, dusk-faced, and pensive, seated facing, within a glow of light; on her forehead she bears a shining star, and on her lap lie the arrows that pierce through all disguise, and the trumpet which proclaims truth to the world' (quoted in Wilton and Upstone 1997, p.200.) He also added, in the introduction to the same catalogue, that 'the vague figure may be vaguely called conscience'.

Watts struggled for seven years to find a suitable title for the mysterious picture. He asked the opinion of a few friends, including Walter Crane, who was inspired to write a sonnet, which begins as follows:

Star-steadfast eyes that pierce the smouldering haze
Of Life and Thought, whose fires prismatic fuse
The palpitating mists with magic hues
That stain the glass of Being, as we gaze,
And mark in transit every mood and phase,
Which, sensitive, doth take or doth refuse
The lights and shadows Time and Love confuse,
When, lost in dreams, we thread their wandering maze.

The sonnet's reference to 'prismatic fires' appears to have inspired the picture's first title, The Soul's Prism. Since a geometrical prism is nowhere to be seen in the work, the title was frequently misquoted as The Soul's Prison and Watts considered changing it to Spirit of the Ages. By 1890 he had decided on The Dweller in the Infinite, and by the time the picture was exhibited in Munich in 1893, the title had taken its final form.

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.199-201, no.75, reproduced p.199, in colour.
Christopher Wood, Victorian Painting, London 1999, pp.196-204.

Frances Fowle
November 2000