George Frederic Watts

The All-Pervading


Not on display

George Frederic Watts 1817–1904
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 2135 × 1120 mm
frame: 2472 × 1457 × 85 mm
Presented by the artist 1899


This is one Watts' most obviously Symbolist works. One of a group of mysterious winged figures which the artist produced during the mid to late 1880s, the painting develops the ideas expressed in the Dweller in the Innermost (c.1885-6, Tate N01631) and relates closely in design to The Recording Angel of c.1890 (London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham). According to his wife, Watts was given the idea for 'The All Pervading' while observing the play of light on the glass drops of an elaborate chandelier in the drawing room he used as his studio when staying at Sliema on Malta. This experience evidently inspired the green globe or crystal ball with its dots and trails of light like shooting stars. Watts was fascinated by astronomy and the mysteries of the universe, and was a friend of the astronomer Sir John Herschel. He was also interested in spiritualism and was elected to the Society for Psychical Research in 1884.

There is something almost womb-like about the way that the woman is cocooned by her golden wings. She is suspended in a misty expanse of space, and despite her heavy robes - reminiscent of the draperies on the Parthenon frieze - appears weightless as she floats in space. The globe seems to hover in her hands, its edges dissolving in a green haze. Despite the figure's calm demeanour, the picture has a disturbing quality, created by the shadowy forms, spectral lighting and dark background. Watts described the winged figure, in the catalogue of his retrospective show at the New Gallery in 1896, as 'the all-pervading Spirit of the Universe … seated, holding in her lap the "Globe of Systems"' (quoted in Wilton and Upstone 1997, p.268). Like one of Michelangelo's monumental Sibyls on the Sistine Chapel Ceiling, her 'all-pervading' vision gives her the power of prophecy, the knowledge of the future and of infinite space. The position of her legs and the arrangement of the draperies in the lower half of the picture make her appear like a giant Earth Mother, about to deliver forth the secrets of the universe.

Watts completed a smaller version of 'The All-Pervading' in 1904. Set within an arched compartment, it served as a secular altarpiece for the Watts Chapel at Compton.

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.267-8, no.125, reproduced p.267, in colour.
Christopher Wood, Victorian Painting, London 1999, pp.196-204.

Frances Fowle
November 2000

Does this text contain inaccurate information or language that you feel we should improve or change? We would like to hear from you.

Display caption

In this painting Watts wanted to express the spirit governing the system he called ‘the immeasurable expanse’. A heavily-draped figure, enveloped by large wings, gazes deep into a globe or crystal ball held at the centre of the composition. Despite its weighty robes the figure appears to defy gravity as it hovers mysteriously in space. Like Michelangelo’s sibyls on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, Watts’s figure appears monumental and androgynous, qualities which suggest a higher knowledge of the universe.

Gallery label, March 2010

Does this text contain inaccurate information or language that you feel we should improve or change? We would like to hear from you.

You might like

In the shop