George Frederic Watts and assistants, ‘Hope’ 1886
George Frederic Watts and assistants, Hope 1886 . Tate

Room 2 in Spotlights

George Frederic Watts: Poems on Canvas

Hope

George Frederic Watts and assistants, Hope  1886

Watts shows the figure of Hope blindfolded on a globe. She is playing a lyre, of which all the strings are broken except one. Several critics argued that Despair would be a more fitting title. Watts clarified: ‘Hope need not mean expectancy. It suggests here rather the music which can come from the remaining chord.’ The painting was much admired at the 1889 Paris Exposition Universelle, the world fair that celebrated France’s empire. It was widely reproduced in print and often seen in Victorian households. Picasso used the painting as a source for The Old Guitarist (1903–4). More recently, Barack Obama claimed it inspired him to enter politics.

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Sic Transit

George Frederic Watts, Sic Transit  1891–2

The title of this painting comes from the Latin phrase sic transit gloria mundi, which was well known at the time. It means ‘thus passes the glory of the world’. Watts shortened it to reflect that his subject was ‘the end of all human existence’. The objects in front of the shrouded figure symbolise the futility of material wealth. On the left, the ermine fur, used on robes of state, denotes power. The lute and book refer to the Arts; the laurel crown and goblet to fame and luxury; the armour and weaponry to military victory. The inscription reads: ‘What I spent, I had, What I saved, I lost, What I gave, I have.’

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The Dweller in the Innermost

George Frederic Watts, The Dweller in the Innermost  c.1885–6

Watts described this painting in 1896 as ‘Conscience ... 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’. With its mystical and ethereal character, this is one of Watts’s most Symbolist works. He painted the imagery without the meaning of the work being fixed. It took him seven years, and the advice of his friends, to settle on a title.

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Mammon

George Frederic Watts, Mammon  1884–5

‘Mammon’ is a term from the Bible. It refers to riches and the corrupting influence of wealth. Here, Watts personifies Mammon as an ogre-like figure. He is shown sitting on a throne adorned with skulls, moneybags on his lap. Watts reveals Mammon’s ignorance through the ass’s ears on his golden crown. Young, beautiful worshippers are shown lifeless, crushed under his foot. Watts wrote in 1880: ‘Material prosperity has become our real god, but we are surprised to find that the worship of this visible deity does not make us happy.’ This dark subject was particularly commented on when the work was displayed at the 1889 Exposition Universelle, the world fair held in Paris.

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Chaos

George Frederic Watts and assistants, Chaos  c.1875–82

Watts intended Chaos to be the ‘opening chapter’ of the House of Life. He said the painting ‘conveys ... an idea of the passing of our planet from chaos to order’. On the left, giants struggle to release themselves from formless fire and vapour. The central figure, emerging from the water, suggests survival. Towards the right, measurable time is signalled by the chain of female figures. In 1884, a version of Chaos was exhibited in a Watts solo show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. It was the museum’s first retrospective dedicated to a living artist.

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George Frederic Watts, Love and Life  c.1884–5

Of all the ‘symbolical’ paintings Watts donated to Tate, he said that ‘probably Love and Life best portrays [my] message to the age.’ Love is represented by the woman on the left, and Life by the winged figure. He described the painting as ‘frail and feeble human existence aided to ascend ... by Love with its wide wings of sympathy, charity, tenderness and human affection’. Watts further explained that the two figures are ‘unclothed for they are only symbols’. In 1893, Watts gave versions of the painting to the national collections in France and the United States.

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Art in this room

Hope
George Frederic Watts and assistants Hope 1886
Sic Transit
George Frederic Watts Sic Transit 1891–2
The Dweller in the Innermost
George Frederic Watts The Dweller in the Innermost c.1885–6
Mammon
George Frederic Watts Mammon 1884–5
Chaos
George Frederic Watts and assistants Chaos c.1875–82
Love and Life
George Frederic Watts Love and Life c.1884–5