7 rooms in Spotlights
These paintings by George Frederic Watts explore his ideas about the meaning and purpose of human existence
George Frederic Watts (1817–1904) was revered by his contemporaries during the Victorian era. He was known at the time as ‘England’s Michelangelo’, suggesting he had great talent and originality. Strongly believing in the importance of public art, Watt’s wanted his work to be relevant to everyone.
In the 1850s, Watts devised a series of murals, entitled the House of Life. He planned that the murals would chart what he saw as the evolution of humanity. Watts was deeply spiritual but did not subscribe to any religion. Although the murals were never completed, Watts expressed his vision in easel paintings instead. His aim was to develop what was for him a universal language. He hoped this would inspire moral redemption, within the context of Victorian Britain.
Watts called these paintings ‘poems painted on canvas’, or ‘symbolical works’. In 1897, he donated 18 of the paintings to the new Tate gallery, just before its opening. Two out of the eight rooms were contemplative spaces dedicated to Watts’s works.
Watts also regularly showed his work in the East End, then the most deprived area of London. He wanted his art to be seen by everyone in society. Inexpensive prints of artworks were becoming available at this time, so many of his works were widely disseminated this way. He also frequently exhibited his paintings abroad. In Europe, the strangeness, spirituality and imagined quality of his paintings struck a chord with a younger generation of artists known as symbolists. Watts’s ideas resonated with their rejection of materialism and search for the other-worldly.