Virtuous image

4th February 2005 at 00:00
Joanna Banham on how a painting offered people optimism in an age of uncertainty

During his lifetime, the Victorian painter and sculptor George Frederic Watts was thought to be the greatest artist of his age. Today, he is best known for his portraits of eminent contemporaries and for large-scale paintings of allegorical themes. "Hope" (1886) is arguably the most iconic of his symbolic paintings and forms the centrepiece of a display of the artist's work currently on show at Tate Britain.

The painting represents an idealised female figure, plucking at a lyre on which all the strings are broken except one. Her eyes are blindfolded, and her body is hunched over the damaged instrument as she strains to hear the quiet sounds that emanate from the single remaining string. She is seated on top of a globe floating in the cosmos; high above her shoulder, a star, reduced to a tiny speck from an earlier version of the painting, flickers in the sky.

Unlike many Victorian artists, Watts was not interested in realistic depictions of nature or paintings of modern life. Instead, he wanted to portray timeless, abstract ideas, and from an early age he was drawn to universal themes, such as life, love and death. Precociously talented and largely self-taught, his intellectual and artistic interests were shaped by his youthful involvement in the decoration of the new Palace of Westminster and by a long stay in Italy studying the art of the Renaissance.

During this period, he became strongly influenced by academic theories about the morally and spiritually regenerative powers of art. Describing his aim as "to stimulate the mind and awaken large thoughts", Watts thought painting should address serious issues rather than simply amuse or entertain and he developed an unshakable belief in its ability to educate and uplift the individual and improve society. These views are particularly relevant to paintings such as "Hope", which were intended for public display and exhibited in galleries such as the Whitechapel in the East End of London as well as in fashionable venues such as the Royal Academy.

The subject was conceived in the late 1840s as part of an ambitious project to produce a vast cycle of frescoes illustrating the origins and spiritual development of mankind, entitled "The House of Life". The project was abandoned due to lack of patronage but Watts continued to produce individual easel paintings related to the scheme. Moreover, he was prompted to return to the theme of hope in the 1880s by a personal tragedy. This was the death of his adopted daughter's baby; the poignancy of the subject and its treatment are strongly suggestive of Watts's feelings of loss and sadness.

The figure of Hope is based on studies of Watts's favourite model, Long Mary. Typically, however, he plays down the individuality of her form in favour of a more generalised, classical treatment. This treatment and a pose echo the work of artists such as Frederic Leighton and Albert Moore who, like Watts, spearheaded the Victorian revival of classical art.

They also reflect the influence of the Elgin Marbles. Watts had first encountered the Elgin Marbles as a student soon after they went on display at the British Museum in 1835, and they had an enormous impact on his work.

He particularly admired the compact and ideal beauty of the figures and the energised treatment of the draperies, breaking up mass into multiple folds.

In "Hope", the luminous, almost ethereal, appearance of the musician's robes are combined with the glowing sensuous colours of the Venetians whom Watts also greatly admired.

Hope is frequently associated with the mythological story of Pandora's box, but in this painting the figure represents one of the three Christian virtues -hope, faith and charity. Yet, despite the religious connotations of his subject, the artist avoids any explicitly Christian associations. He himself was deeply spiritual but adhered to no particular doctrine or creed. His decision to portray hope as a non-denominational idea reflects his distrust of formalised religion; it also enabled him to produce a painting that could serve as a universal emblem of consolation for all mankind.

To many viewers, however, Watts's image of Hope seemed far from optimistic or comforting. The desolation of the setting, the pathos of the figure, the scarcely visible star, and the helpless plucking of the damaged lyre, coupled with the overall blue tonality of the painting, suggest a mood of melancholy and sorrow strongly at variance with the title. G K Chesterton declared the picture to be more like an image of despair, and many of his contemporaries were puzzled by its meaning. Watts himself explained that "it is only when one supreme desire is left that one reaches the topmost pitch of hope".

This comment illustrates the artist's belief in the indestructible nature of faith, even when it is assailed from all sides and appears to be defeated. It also echoes the confusion and growing pessimism typical of an age increasingly beset by self-doubt, spiritual uncertainty and a loss of confidence in the benefits of social, intellectual and economic progress.

Within this context, the vulnerability and pathos of Watts's image struck a nerve.

The artist was besieged with letters from ordinary people who claimed the painting had helped combat their fears; one, from a prostitute, described how it had inspired her to fight her "way back to a life of purity and honour". Postcards of "Hope" were given to soldiers during the First World War and copies were issued to Egyptian troops after their defeat in the Egyptian-Israeli war in 1967.

Joanna Banham is head of public programmes at Tate Britain

GF Watts 1817-1904

George Frederic Watts was apprenticed to sculptor William Behnes in 1827 and entered the Royal Academy Schools in 1835. He was awarded first prize in the Palace of Westminster competitions of 1843 and 1847, after which he and his work became fashionable. In 1867 he was elected to the Royal Academy and in 1902 he was awarded the Order of Merit. He was briefly married to the actress Ellen Terry, and later to designer Mary Fraser Tytler.


KS 1-2

Describe the painting. What is the figure doing. Where is she sitting? Is she wearing modern clothes? Can we see the tiny star in the sky? Can you think of other stories that include a star?

Why do you think the artist included it and what do you think it means?

KS 2-3

Does Watts's painting seem happy or sad? Why? How? How important is colour in creating mood in the painting?

What other colours can be used to evoke strong feelings? What objects does the painting contain that are associated with hope?

What does the word "hope" mean to you and what feelings do you associate with it? Does Watts's idea of hope match yours?

KS 3

Watts liked to make pictures representing strong emotions such as hope, love or fear. Draw or paint your own version. This figure is based on classical Greek sculptures. Compare it with figures in the Elgin Marbles (in the British Museum).

Compare Watts's treatment of classical figures with that of other Victorian artists shown in the Tate, such as Frederic Leighton and Albert Moore.

KS 3-4

Watts believed that art could enrich and improve people's lives. He thought that a beautiful painting or sculpture of a noble theme could inspire them to think lofty thoughts and set an example for them to follow.

What do you think about this view? Do any artists or musicians today try to educate or change their audience's views?


Picasso is thought to have admired this work. Compare Watts's picture with works from Picasso's Blue Period, especially "The Old Guitarist" (1903). What are the similarities and differences?

Reproductions of "Hope" were given to soldiers during the First World War.

How do you think they would have responded? What other works of art might be given to soldiers during a conflict today?

lGF Watts and the House of Life, Tate Britain (Room 14)

Tel: 020 7887 8734

The largest collection of Watts's work is at the Watts Gallery, near Guildford, Surrey

Tel: 01483 810235

The Vision of G F Watts, edited by Veronica Franklin Gould Veronica Gould pound;14.95

The Age of Rossetti, Burne-Jones and Watts: Symbolism in Britain 1860-1910, by Andrew Wilton, Tate Gallery pound;25.15

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