Illustration from George Frederick Watts by J. E. Phythian (1907)
George Frederick Watts
Date: British painter, sculptor, 1817–1904
Biography: George Frederic Watts was the son of a poor pianoforte-maker. About 1827 he was apprenticed to the sculptor William Behnes, who taught him to draw from antique casts. His love for the antique-he claimed his only teachers were the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum-remained steadfast throughout his life and resulted in such images as The Judgment of Paris (1874, Faringdon Collection, Buscot Park, National Trust) and Ariadne in Naxos (1875, Guildhall, London), as well as in works of sculpture.

Watts exhibited at the Royal Academy from 1837 on. Although best known for his portraits, he experimented in a variety of genres. He successfully competed in the scheme for the decoration of the Houses of Parliament in 1841, winning with his cartoon of Caractacus Led in Triumph through the Streets of Rome. His social realist subjects include the heartrending Found Drowned (1848-1850, Watts Gallery, Compton). His landscapes, particularly those of the Italian countryside, reflect his love for that country.

From 1851 to 1875, Watts lived with and was cared for by Thoby and Sara Prinsep at Little Holland House in London. The Prinseps' enclave was a haven for artists and writers of the day, including Alfred Tennyson, Julia Margaret Cameron, and many of the Pre-Raphaelites. It was during this period that Watts began to paint portraits, often of Little Holland House attendees. Later in life, Watts turned increasingly to symbolic subjects such as Love and Death (1874-1877, Whitworth Art Gallery, University of Manchester) and The Sower of the Systems (1902, Watts Gallery, Compton). These images, painted in thick impasto, are dense with a symbolism that was entirely personal and is often difficult to interpret. Watts's desire to paint "ideas" on a grand scale culminated in his project for a "House of Life," a kind of history of mankind.

Watts married Mary Fraser Tytler (1850-1938) and moved to Compton in Surrey in 1891. Mary Watts was herself a craftsperson who worked primarily in ceramics. After his death in 1904, she designed a mortuary chapel in her husband's memory; it still stands today.

From "Biography of George Frederic Watts (1817-1904)" by Stephen Wildman, in 'Waking Dreams: The Art of the Pre-Raphaelites from the Delaware Art Museum' (Alexandria, VA: Art Services International, 2004), p. 372.