This week, to mark the 202nd birthday of George Frederic Watts, we peer back into the vaults and look at a Work of the Week. Here, Tahmina takes a look at the first piece ever to enter the Whitworth’s collection.
Made between 1877 and 1887, Love and Death by George Frederic Watts was the first work acquired by the Whitworth Institute. Though there are many versions of Love and Death, the one held at the Whitworth can be regarded as the principal one. This version, although not the earliest, was the one Watts exhibited at the opening exhibition of the Grosvenor Gallery in 1887, where it caused a sensation. The Whitworth had tried to purchase the work from Watts before this date, led by Sir William Agnew, a prominent member of the Whitworth Committee. However, Watts had initially refused to sell it, which is a clear indication of how much he prized the work. However, on hearing the Whitworth’s intentions to bring art and education to the people of Manchester, Watts, impressed, reconsidered and presented the picture as “a sign of being in fellowship with the movement you and your colleagues are instituting.”
The historic importance of Love and Death to the Whitworth may be the reason why, despite its monetary value, it was not sold off during the Gallery’s financial troubles of the 1920s and 1930s. In 1997-8, the work’s enduring significance ensured that it featured prominently in the Symbolism exhibition at the Tate Gallery in London, which then travelled to Munich and Hamburg. In 2000-1 it was also loaned to an exhibition about the artistic influences on the filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock, which was shown in Montreal and then travelled to Paris.
The subject was inspired by a portrait commission of the 8th Marquis of Lothian, and depicts Love as a winged youth with large crushed wings vainly trying to defend the House of Life, being brushed aside as the cloaked figure of Death enters a doorway. The roses around Death have begun to wither in response to her presence. Watts’ described this painting as ‘the progress of the inevitable but not terrible Death, who partially but not completely overshadows Love.’ The picture is not so much a memento mori as it is an image of consolation for an age continually faced with the presence of death in everyday life.
“I paint ideas, not things”
Born in London in 1817, George Frederic Watts was a popular English portraitist, sculptor and landscape painter of the Victorian period. A driving force behind the Symbolist movement, Watts became famous in his lifetime for his allegorical works such as Love and Life, and Time, Death and Judgement. He left behind a body of Symbolist work that addressed key issues of the time such as morality, mortality, poverty and Victorian loss of faith, among many other concerns. His commitment and ardent passion for art led to critics dubbing him ‘England’s Michelangelo’.
Like his contemporaries, John Ruskin and William Morris, Watts saw art as a means to social reform but was conscious of the fact that the Victorian public would not tolerate or appreciate works that reflected harsh truths about the society they lived in. However, understanding the Victorian public’s appetite for art and their preoccupation with symbolism and high emotion, Watts knew that the public would look at works that told the same truths through myth and symbol. Watts himself said, “I paint ideas, not things. My intention is less to paint works that are pleasing to the eye than to suggest great thoughts which will speak to the imagination and the heart and will arouse all that is noblest and best in man.”
His works acted as a looking-glass reflecting the intricate layers of Victorian life and the difficult position Victorian society found itself in; on one hand, the Victorians were on the cusp of the modern world, and on the other, they had a foot in the past. Watts astutely tapped into this sense of uncertainty and quiet hysteria and attempted to leave his mark on a society trying to forge a collective identity as well as living as a set of disparate individuals. In a note accompanying a group of drawings, also acquired by the Whitworth Institute, Watts wrote that, “the endeavour is to identify Art with the best in the conscience and action of the age…to give expression to the direction of modern thought upon the great problems that have reference to human spiritual and moral nature.”