George Frederick Watts
Biography of English 19th Century Portrait Artist, Sculptor.

Pin it

Portrait of Cardinal Manning (1881)
National Portrait Gallery, London

For the greatest portraitists
see: Best Portrait Artists.

George Frederick Watts (1817-1904)

From 1847, Watts established a solid reputation for himself among intellectual circles, but did not achieve popular acclaim as an artist until the early 1880s, in the wake of exhibitions of his work in Manchester (1880), London (1881), and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (1884). But by his last years he was the most revered and famous artists in Britain. He was strongly influenced by Michelangelo and the great Venetian painters like Titian, and he infused his artworks with moral narrative - typically, complex allegorical messages, which though originally very popular now appear rather dated. His portraits of great contemporary figures - Cardinal Manning, the philosopher JS Mill, the poet Tennyson, and Prime Minister William Gladstone (all in the National Portrait Gallery, London) - have endured much better. As a sculptor, he is best rembered for his equestrian statue Physical Energy (1904). Since his death, his house near Guildford has been turned into the Watts Gallery and displays a wide variety of his works. In 1986, his oil painting Hope was sold for $1.1 million.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-82)
Romantic leader of Pre-Raphaelites
John Everett Millais (1829-96)
Academic portraitist
William Morris (1834-96)
Leader of Arts & Crafts Movement
Aubrey Beardsley (1872-98)
Art Nouveau illustrator
English Figurative Painting
18th/19th century portraiture
English Landscape Painting
18th and 19th century art

For a list of the finest works of
painting and sculpture, by the
world's most famous artists, see:
Greatest Modern Paintings
Oils, watercolours, mixed media
by top painters: 1850-present.
Greatest Sculptures Ever
3-D works in stone, bronze, wood.
Antiquity, Gothic, Renaissance,
Baroque, Neoclassical, Modern,
and Contemporary.

Best Artists of All Time.
For the top allegorical painting,
see: Best History Painters.

Early Life

George Frederick Watts was an artist of gifts similar to those of his Victorian contemporary Alfred Stevens, but he had not the same singleness of artistic purpose and consequently his achievement, fine as it was, constitutes a less satisfactory whole. Like so many other English artists he learned drawing and fine art painting at the Royal Academy Schools, and this was followed by a period of work in the studio of the sculptor Behnes (1795-1864), which was probably of more importance in shaping his style, for it was there that he acquired his practical knowledge of sculpture. But it was from a close and loving study of the Elgin Marbles that he learned most, and the large and tranquil dignity of his best work certainly derives from them as well as the type of his ideal figures and his characteristic treatment of draperies.

For the top 100 world's best
stone/wood carvers and bronze
artists, see: Greatest Sculptors.

In 1843, a prize won in the Westminster Hall competition of that year enabled him to visit Italy, where he remained for four years, painting and studying the Italian old masters, especially those of the Renaissance in Venice, whose influence combined with that of the Elgin Marbles to form the main characteristics of his mature style.

Early Decorative Artworks

He returned to England in 1847, and in the same year was successful a second time in winning a prize in the Westminster Hall competition for his cartoon 'Alfred inciting his Subjects to resist the Danes', which was subsequently carried out in the House of Lords. But his ambitions in the direction of mural painting met with little encouragement. An offer to decorate the hall of Euston Station, without payment, was refused, though an offer of the same kind to the Benchers of Lincoln's Inn was accepted, and he painted on the north wall of the hall a fresco of 'Justice, a Hemicycle of Lawgivers'. This fresco and the 'Alfred' in the House of Lords were almost the only murals of importance which Watts carried out, but nearly all his larger pictures, though painted on canvas, and not designed for a particular site, have the largeness and dignity of style associated with mural decoration.


Influences and Life

Modern art movements had little effect on the development of Watts's style, and, though he came under the influence of the Pre-Raphaelites, and traces of Turner's inspiration are fairly obvious here and there in his work, he remained rather an isolated figure. After his boyhood he had no financial struggles, and he was able to devote himself laboriously to his art in a carefully sheltered seclusion. His reputation was firmly established before his rather belated election as an associate of the Royal Academy in 1863, which was followed by full membership four years later. Of the rest of his life there is little to tell. He remained to the end of it a fairly regular exhibitor at the Academy, as well as at the Grosvenor and New Galleries, and he exercised a considerable influence on many later 19th-century artists. By artists and public alike he was regarded with a reverence and awe which has rarely been accorded to any other English painter, and when the Order of Merit was conferred on him in 1902 it aptly expressed the general esteem in which he was held. He had already three times refused a title.

Since his death, Watts's reputation has suffered from the general reaction against all things Victorian, but it seems likely that it will survive this phase of disparagement, even if it never stands again quite so high as it did at the end of his life.

The Art of George Frederick Watts

Watts's work falls naturally into three categories, narrative painting (including allegories, historical and mythical subjects), portraits, and landscapes; and he himself would probably himself have ranked them in this order of importance, for he regarded himself above all as a teacher with a message to deliver. Such an attitude in an artist is now so unfamiliar as to be difficult to understand, but it was natural enough in an age when the minds of men were much occupied with moral problems and a picture was still expected to be a vehicle for thought.

Allegories, Mythological, History Paintings

To-day aesthetic purists may object to the ethical meaning with which Watts loaded his pictures, and one may feel that the weight of this load was sometimes more than the pictures could support. But if we dismiss from our minds the modern prejudice against pictures with a 'purpose', we must admit that Watts clothed his ideas in large and dignified forms, which, impressive in themselves, are an appropriate vehicle for their moral content. It is true that history painting of this kind seem out of place on the walls of an exhibition, and that it would have been far better if they could have been embodied in some homogeneous scheme of decoration of a building, in which their meaning would have been consonant with the purpose for which the building was intended. Watts himself would certainly have preferred it so, and it was no fault of his that his allegorical and mythological painting consists of detached fragments from such a scheme. Their really fine quality can be best appreciated by comparing them with those of other painters of similar subjects. Allegories are notoriously difficult to paint, and often seem no more than the flimsiest excuse for a picture, but with Watts this was never the case, and in his best work subject and form have an inevitable unity. 'Chaos' (Tate Gallery), 'The Spirit of Christianity' (Tate Gallery), 'Love and Death' (National Gallery London) are fine examples of this side of his art.


Watts's greatest qualities are evident in his portrait art, and these works are not open to the objections commonly brought against his allegories, although they are treated with the same idealism and seriousness of purpose. Few of his portraits were commissions. He painted them as historical records of the great men of his time, and kept them in his own possession until he presented them to the nation. He began in Italy as a young man after making the acquaintance of Lord Holland, who befriended him and got him distinguished sitters, thus enabling him to begin his series of historical portraits early in his career. They are painted in a spirit of hero worship which emphasizes the public greatness of his sitters rather than their private aspect, but they have nothing about them of the official portrait. They may perhaps best be described as symbolic portraits, for Watts sees in the physical characteristics of his sitters nothing but symbols of their greatness.

The majority of Victorian portraits, however well they may be painted, have too much the look of models posing and remind one inevitably of students' studies. None of Watts's portraits have this look. In a curious way he isolates the personality from its chance surroundings, and eliminates, as Joshua Reynolds did, everything that is momentary and accidental. Indeed his aims in portraiture were very similar to those of Reynolds, and his figures have the same typical character, though they breathe a very different air. In contrast to the feeling of wealthy and aristocratic leisure which animates the portraits of Reynolds, there is in those of Watts a dynamic energy of the spirit and the intellect.

The costume of his time did not give Watts the same opportunities for gorgeous colour schemes as Reynolds, but in spite of this limitation, the colour of his portraits has a sober and dignified richness which well befits their earnestness of purpose, and when the opportunity for strong colour presented itself he could make the most of it. Difficulties of costume, also, probably account for the fact that most of Watts's portraits are heads and shoulders, or small half-lengths in which the whole attention could be concentrated on the head.

Portrait of Cardinal Manning

The portrait of Cardinal Manning, in which the costume allowed him to distribute the interest over his canvas, is on a larger scale than most of his male portraits, and is a fine example of what he could do with such an opportunity. It is, indeed, one of the best portraits which he ever painted, and exhibits particularly well his sympathetic idealism. Watts (one imagines) was not by nature particularly in sympathy with the Roman Catholic Church nor with Manning himself, and he might well have treated this picture as a costume piece with no more than a decorative interest. Instead he makes a living symbol of that strange mixture of splendour and asceticism, of worldly pomp and spiritual force, which is the historic Catholic Church. For all the splendour of scarlet and lace, the picture is dominated by the lean ascetic head of the Cardinal, whose burning eyes bespeak an intensity of spiritual energy that the gorgeousness of his robes cannot throw into shade. With many of his other sitters, with Carlyle, with Tennyson, with William Morris, for example, Watts presumably had a much more natural sympathy, yet splendid though their portraits are, they do not surpass the portrait of Manning in their sympathetic insight and symbolic idealism. It was characteristic of Watts that in his portraits he completely suppresses himself, and leaves no trace of any personal relationship between himself and his sitter. He seems to re-create his subjects rather than to describe them, so that in looking at the portraits we feel that we are brought into direct contact with a powerful personality.

Women he painted more rarely than men and on the whole less successfully; his understanding of them was less certain and the ruggedness of his touch often degenerates into an uncertain fumble in his efforts to adapt it to the delicacy of feminine beauty. Nevertheless some of his portraits of women, notably Mrs. Nassau Senior, have much beauty and graciousness.

A fellow Royal Academician of Watts' was the highly popular animal portrait painter Sir Edwin Landseer (1802-73), noted for his sentimental paintings and etchings of dogs and for his portraits of Queen Victoria and the Royal Family.


In landscape painting Watts does not reach so high a level as in his other work, though even here he was on a higher level than many of his contemporaries in England. He had not the close and intimate knowledge of nature necessary for the great landscape-painter, and in consequence he saw too much with the eyes of others. JMW Turner (1775-1851), John Crome (1768-1821), and John Constable (1776-1837) at various times seem to have been his models, but he lacks the direct approach of any of these, and he appears to be trying to make his landscapes the vehicle of ideas and moods not proper to them.

Yet despite all failures and shortcomings the achievement of Watts was a great one. The fine aesthetic qualities of his work and the unswerving integrity of purpose which inspired it, will ultimately ensure him a position among the great artists of his time. His works hang in some of the best art museums in the UK.

• For biographies of other great artists, see: Famous Painters.
• For more about Victorian painting, see: Homepage.

Visual Artists, Greatest
© All rights reserved.