This post was looking like it was heading for the bowels of my computer, but now the V&A have announced a new exhibition on aestheticism, I think it’s fairly relevant to that. It’s adapted from one of my lectures on the renaissance and 19th century English art.
Watts was known as the “English Michelangelo," probably because of his prowess as a sculptor. Today his fame rests largely on his painting; he could paint across the spectrum, from society portraits to symbolic and allegorical works of the most beguiling complexity. When his art, especially ‘Love and Death’, were exhibited at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1878, he immediately became incorporated into the International Symbolist movement. His Cupid here could be based on the antique, but it’s pose also reminds me of a putto in one of Raphael’s tapestry cartoons.
A measure of his status can be seen in the fact that Watt’s works are mentioned in the so-called “bible of decadence”, J.K. Huysman’s A Rebours of 1884. Here’s a suitably dandified portrait of Huysmans. This novel was avidly read by Oscar Wilde and the English Aesthetic movement who regarded it as a manifesto for a life of decadence. In A Rebours, Watts is summed up in these terms: “..the weirdly coloured pictures by Watts…a dreamy scholarly Englishman afflicted with a predilection for hideous hues.” This assessment hits the mark; Watts did specialise in paintings that though laden with classical and renaissance references, nevertheless had a more abstract and “dreamy” feel to them. His treatment of the classical nude should be seen as part of a trend seeking to expunge all classical and humanistic associations from it in favour of something more symbolic and diffuse. A source of this mistiness in technique and subject matter can be found in Spiritualism. Watts was heavily involved in this through friends and patrons, and his language as the following extract shows echoes the metaphors of spiritualism, such as rending the veil:
“the one thing which is more than ever clearly perceived is the density of the veil that covers the mystery of our being, at all times impenetrable, and to be impenetrable, in spite of which conviction we ever passionately yearn to pierce it. This yearning finds its natural expression in poetry, in art, and in music.”
“Yet as long as humanity is humanity, man will yearn to ascend the heights human footsteps may not tread, and long to lift the veil that shrouds the enigma of being, and he will most prize the echo of this longing in even the incoherent expression of literature, music, and art.”
Watts was, arguably, the most symboliste of all the post-Pre-Raphaelite movement. His art was a confluence of several genres: the figural nude, the poeticised archetypical woman, and an uncompromising symbolism in which the subject seems to dissolve into dream and reverie, the distillation of the painted thoughts of a dreamy, scholarly English scholar pursuing the unattainable.
We observe the dandy hero of Huysman’s novel, Des Esseintes, poring over British illustrated travel guides in the Rue de Rivoli.
“He became interested in the laconic and exact details of the guide books, but his attention wandered away from the old English paintings to the moderns which attracted him much more. He recalled certain works he had seen at international expositions, and imagined that he might possibly behold them once more at London: pictures by Millais- the Eve of Saint Agnes with its lunar clear green; pictures by Watts, strange in colour, gamboge and indigo, pictures sketched by a sick Gustave Moreau, painted by an anaemic Michel Angelo and re-touched by a Raphael submerged in blue. Among other canvases, he recalled a Denunciation of Cain, an Ida, some Eves (like this “She Shall Be Called Woman”) where in the strange and mysterious mixtures of these three masters, rose the personality, at once refined and crude, of a learned and dreamy Englishman tormented by the bewitchment of cruel tones.” I’ll do another post on Huysmans soon, his knowledge of renaissance art via Gustave Moreau.
N.B. Gamboge is “a partially transparent dark mustard yellow pigment.” Thanks Wikipedia. What a brilliant name for a colour!