Toward the art of Watts it is difficult for me to maintain anything like critical detachment. My mind goes back too vividly to that winter of the New York exhibition of 1884, when, as a lad, I first caught the truth that great painting may arouse and calm one as great poetry does or noble music. After more than thirty years I still recall the fragile form of “Life heartened to the next hesitant step upward by the strong hand of “Love,” and “Love” himself with wings broken against a door into which “Death” must pass. I retain, too, a general sense of grave, shrewd, and magnanimous faces set between the larger canvases. The “Matthew Arnold” is still clear to me, and the massive head of that great Christian warrior, “Lawrence of India.” Eight years later it was my privilege to confirm these admirations by a visit to the studio in Melbury Road. Even since, the question of Watts’s symbolism, its legitimacy and its limits, has been occasion-ally present to me. It is, naturally, the central critical issue, and the answers are confusingly various. Among English artists and men of letters it is common enough to hear Watts spoken of as an admirable landscapist and portrait-painter, unhappily warped by a fad for allegory. Others laud the elevation and copiousness of his invention while regretting the inadequacy of his technic. Some count him the greatest technician of the century, while more or less averse from his transcendental themes.
Such wide differences of intelligent opinion show how exceptional was the man’s genius. He recked little of our artistic standards; he escapes our categories; he seems irreducibly the individualist, yet an individualist with a baffling difference, for there never was a soul more socially minded than Watts. Nations were his beneficiaries-France, Canada, Australia, the United States, above all his own England, which now by gift or bequest possesses the bulk of his work. To do public decoration for the actual cost was almost habitual with him. He put away wealth in the desire to serve his times and posterity. His very looks and habits suggested oddly a reincarnation of the older artists he adored. His resemblance to the aged Titian was striking, and he followed Titian’s way of painting slowly upon many canvases, gradually perfecting them through years. The forms of the mountain chains, made up of prone titans, in the design for “Chaos,” he took from the stains on a crumbling plaster wall. It was one of Leonardo da Vinci’s devices for stimulating invention. Watts’s habit of painting from small modelled figures had earlier been Tintoretto’s. Thus in all respects he seems an anachronism in London of the nineteenth century, and his own requirement that a painter must be of his times seems ironic. Yet in the childlike seriousness and persistency of the man was no taint of irony. He was, I believe, not merely one of the greatest artists of his time, but in all essentials one of the most representative. If he differs from most successful painters of his day, it is precisely because they represent next to nothing-individual caprice, trick of trade, flutter of the market-whereas he represents almost alone among painters the deeper currents of life and thought that mark the Victorian age. In gratitude for the first great impression of art I ever received, let me now endeavor to analyze his genius.
My task is the easier that Watts’s purpose was single and fully expressed not merely in his pictures, but also in his letters, recorded talk, and published writings. The difficulty, indeed, is the excess of material. Shortly after his death a neighbor, Mrs. Barrington, published a bulky and formless Life. Now Mrs. Watts exceeds the standard measure of two volumes by adding an entire volume of her late husband’s literary works. The tone of her biography is excellent; she preserves many sayings that one would be sorry to miss; she gives the general sense of that purposeful yet carefully sheltered life, of the coming and going of grave men and fair women, of an atmosphere of cheerful reverence and love. And yet the picture is sadly obscured by the details. Nor can Watts himself be said to be interesting through so many pages. Could the Prophet Isaiah himself bear expansion to three-volume scale? In the considerable task of sifting much ill-assorted material, I shall be helped by Robert de la Sizeranne, who has admirably analyzed the art, and by G. K. Chesterton, whose little biography leaves nothing to add on the topic of Watts as a representative Victorian.
What is remarkable about Watts is his absolutely dedicated life. Had he deliberately intended to make himself a great painter, he would have held no other course. Of poor parents and barely educated in his youth, he was grounded at least in his Bible, his Homer, and his Scott, and he soon undertook the hard task of teaching himself French, Italian, and Greek, and the easier task of teaching himself how to draw and paint. His earliest drawing, probably of his seventh year, is a “Sisyphus”-a universal type. Before he was sixteen he was taking commissions for chalk and pencil portraits, and was self-supporting. At eighteen, in 1835, he was admitted to the Antique School of the Academy. The keeper, William Hilton, ad-mired his work and besought him to abstain from imaginative composition during his schooling-advice which young Watts calmly disregarded. In his twentieth year, 1837, he exhibited two portraits at the Academy, and one masterly composition, the “Wounded Heron.” The portrait of his father, done two years earlier, is more thinly painted, but has the wistful candor of a Gilbert Stuart. It suggests the gentle spirit of the humble musician baffled by the world, sympathetic guardian of a mother-less boy of genius. For a few years young Watts, hampered by the prostrating headaches which pursued him through life, worked chiefly as a portrait-painter, gradually emerging from the world of Dickens to that, by anticipation, of Mrs. Humphry Ward. And then came the success that made him a great artist. In a laudable but abortive effort to encourage mural painting, looking to the new Parliament House, the government, in 1842, instituted a competition of cartoons on subjects in English history or literature. One hundred and forty designs were submitted, and young Watts, with Cope and Edward Armitage, received one of the three first awards of three hundred pounds sterling. “Caractacus Led in Triumph through the Streets of Rome” was the subject, and from the existing fragments it is clear that Watts had already saturated himself with the grandeur of the Parthenon marbles and of Titian.
With his cartoon money he went to Italy. At Florence he became a casual guest of Lord Holland, minister to the Tuscan grand duchy. The beauty and gentleness of the young man appealed to those fine amateurs Lord and Lady Holland, and he remained their guest for the four Italian years. This meant a spacious life, now in the Palazzo Feroni, now at the Medici villa of Careggi, now at Naples; it meant, too, the very best society the world afforded. Watts became the friend of the brilliant Duff-Gordons; Ristori sat to him, and Verdi and Princess Mathilde Bonaparte. There was space and leisure for great canvases. Italian history and legend supplied the themes-Buondelmonte, Paolo and Francesca, Fata Morgana, Boccaccio’s story-tellers. In the Casa Feroni and at Careggi he made his first attempts at fresco. Rome supplied the great sensation of the Sistine Chapel. With the Parthenon marbles it was henceforth ever present to him as the test of the elevation of his own work. Michelangelo’s influence is plain in the historical painting, completed in 1846 for a new government competition, and later bought by the nation, “Alfred Inciting the Saxons to Resist the Danes by Sea”; but in the main the leading influence in the early as in the later painting is that of the Venetians. The same year Watts begged the Greek merchant Constantine Ionides to commission him “to paint a picture to send to Greece. Some patriotic subject, something that shall carry a moral lesson.” The publicist is making himself felt in the detached artist. In a letter he describes his “Alfred” as “dedicated to patriotism and posterity.” In every way the idyllic guest-friendship with the Hollands was fruitful. Young Watts, like Delacroix, had definitely rooted his art in that of the High Renaissance. More-over, it seemed as if he were to realize the precepts of Sir Joshua and the ambitions of the unhappy Haydon in founding an historical school of painting. For such work the monumental gravity of the “Caractacus” cartoon and the fire of the “Alfred” show that he had every qualification, and his increasing devotion to symbolism bears a little the look of thwarted development-a question that must later occupy us.
Meanwhile it is interesting to note how circumstance plays into the hands of a steadfast purpose. For three years after he left the Hollands in Florence, until 1850, Watts, in invalid fashion, fought it out alone in London. Then Mr. and Mrs. Thoby Prinsep took him in at Little Holland House, near his old patrons, and Signor, as they called him, was resident elder brother to that charming family for more than thirty years, inheriting, when the Prinseps moved out, their excellent housekeeper. And when Little Holland House was replaced by its namesake in Melbury Road, the master, in his old age, was cherished first by an adopted daughter, then by the young wife who is now his biographer. His homes at London and at the Surrey studio, Limnerslease, became places of pilgrimage for wise, good, and merry people. The very hack work of portraiture seldom brought to him a person he did not value, and led to him many of the fairest women and ablest men of his time. And this necessary toil was much lessened through the faith of a constant patron, Mr. Charles H. Rickards, of Manchester, whose collection became the nucleus of those exhibitions that in the eighties brought the master tardy fame. Thus he painted much on his own terms, as a postscript to Gladstone concerning a sitting will suggest. It reads: “Not a word to be spoken from the beginning to the end.” In every way he was spared for his work. To have married in middle life so alien a genius as that of the brilliant girl Ellen Terry would have fatally disoriented many a transcendentalist; but the mismated stars were well out of the coil after a twelvemonth, and he planning a new venture in colossal statuary. In 1867, at fifty, he was made an academician. Twice he declined a baronetcy at Gladstone’s hands. And when he died, at the age of eighty-seven, in 1904, he was generally regarded as EngIand’s foremost artist. The colossal equestrian group, “Physical Energy,” which had been the chief concern of his later years, was cast by the state for London, and a replica set up as a memorial to Cecil Rhodes on the Matoppo Hills.
From his seclusion Watts maintained a singularly magnanimous public spirit. Besides the great series of portraits and poetical pieces which he reserved for the nation, he gave away scores of his best pictures to public galleries, offered to fresco Euston Station for the costs, volunteered as a rifleman, established a private memorial to the obscurely heroic, wrote on the imperial destinies of England, instructed the villagers near Limnerslease in arts and crafts, gave his tithe to Ruskin’s ill-fated St. George’s Guild-in general, showed himself the most socially minded of men, yet keeping these activities strictly in line with his career as an artist. Day by day throughout his life he rose at daybreak, grudging the necessary hours of sleep. Almost alone among modern painters, he studied with utmost care color and vehicles with regard to their permanency. Every great composition was repeatedly amended and frequently put through several versions. So the long and stainless life was rounded out in gentle persistency, in kindliness, in high endeavor, and in a strange imperturbability.
Rossetti once, in a rare moment of affluence, hired a hansom and took young Burne-Jones to Little Holland House to see a painter who “paints a queer sort of pictures about God and creation.” The casual phrase still pretty well describes the attitude of the ordinary per-son toward Watts’s symbolistic compositions. Our immediate concern is to ask why Watts quit history for his symbols. In the first place his historical compositions had been very much a by-product of successful competitions. The pictures represented opportunities which chanced never to recur. Then it is likely that he may already have had misgivings as to the validity of the genre. In his later years he used to insist that the only truthful historical art was portraiture. As early as 1848 he entertained the scheme of forming a gallery of portraits of his great contemporaries-a purpose inflexibly maintained for more than fifty years. Aside from this new and absorbing emprise the turnover into symbolism seems to me a natural _expression of a soul profoundly religious yet discontented with outworn forms of Christian mythology. Watts’s task was to ascertain the essential ideals of a holy life, and to find human forms that might fitly impersonate these ideals. In the first quest, he often admitted himself, he invented nothing, for “Love and Death,” and “Life and Hope,” and “Greed and Time,” and “Hate and Valor” are always present to every thinking soul. In the second quest, that of finding human symbols for these great forces, he had the guidance of Pheidias and Titian, and, of course, many accepted types lay ready in classical and Biblical legend; but the achievement of fitting the residual faith of his age with appropriate symbols must count among the supreme efforts of creative imagination. For there is nothing cold about the mythology of Watts. His heroic forms are the very antipodes of those sleek transcriptions from the model which grace so many public halls in France and America. They are warm with life, portentous with meaning. It is easy to hate them, and a certain kind of realist or impressionist is probably bound to hate them. It is easy to mock at them, but impossible to forget them. They are as personal as a vision of Giorgione or Blake, and no artist ever needed less a signature. The double process of framing a kind of theology and inventing its symbols is, so far as I know, unique in the history of art. Blake, no doubt, is the nearest parallel, and to him was denied the discipline of monumentality.
Whether my explanation of Watts’s symbolistic trend convinces or not, at least the stages of the development may quite accurately be traced. In 1848, the year of revolutions, he planned a comprehensive scheme of decoration to be called “The House of Life”-a project so significant of his way of thinking that we must linger over it. Very interesting is the constant mixture of history and symbolism, and especially significant the way in which forces, ideals, and abstractions assume human form. This is the true mythological temper. Watts’s memorandum runs:
The ceiling to be covered with the uniform blue of space, on which should be painted the Sun, the Earth, and the Moon, as it is by their several revolutions and dependence upon each other that we have a distinct notion of and are able to measure and estimate the magnitude of Time. The progress of Time and its consequent effect I would illustrate for the purpose of conveying a moral lesson-the design of Time and Oblivion would be exactly in its place. To complete the design, the Earth should be attended by two figures symbolic of the antagonistic forces, Attraction and Repulsion. I would then give, perhaps, upon one-half of the ceiling, which might be divided with a gold band on which the Zodiac might be painted, a nearer view of Earth, and by a number of gigantic figures stretched out at full length to represent a range of mountains, typifying the rocky structure or skeleton. These I would make very grand and impressive, in order to emphasize the insignificance of man. The most important (to us) of the constellations should shine out of the deep ultramarine firmament. Silence and mighty repose should be stamped upon the character and disposition of the giants, and revolving centuries and cycles should glide, personified by female figures of great beauty, beneath the crags upon which the mighty forms should lie, to indicate (as compared with the effect upon man and his works) the non-effect of time upon them.
Then I would begin with man himself, trace him through his moral and political life; first the hunter stage. . . . Next the pastoral state. . This is the Golden Age, the age of poetry. . . . There would be a great chance of exquisite subjects to illustrate this epoch, and here might be introduced the episode of Job.
Next should be man-the tyrant-the insidious oppressor-the slave, a dweller in cities-the Egyptians raise the pyramids, etc.
Here the manuscript becomes discontinuous, but there seems to have been intended a pageant of the progress of civilization, through the ages, to the preaching of Peter the Hermit. All along would have been depicted, with the mythology of each people, those heroes whom he regarded as most instrumental in the spiritual advancement of the race. Watts later re-marked that “with certain material advantages, which would have caused me by their nature to weld my thoughts into a regular form, I think my efforts might have been given place as an epic.” The observation shows a curious lack of understanding of what an epic is. Yet I think the mood sceptical will in a fair-minded person yield to the conviction that, given the “material advantages,” Watts would have produced, not the epic, but a decorative sequence which might fully have realized his ambition “to do for modern thought what Michelangelo did for theological thought.”
One’s confidence in his power to execute so grandiose a scheme must rest upon the great fresco of ” Justice” which he executed between 1852 and 1859 for the chapel of Lincoln’s Inn. Many interruptions, including an archaeological trip through the Greek Islands to the site of the Mausoleum, delayed the work. In the swift and nervous transfer of his designs to the wet plaster he found the chanting of the choristers an inspiration. and solace. Always he loved to parallel his art with music, endeavored himself to master the violin, even dreamed occasionally of composing solemn anthems. The ” Justice,” with its half-circle of great law-givers, is, everything considered, the finest true fresco executed since the Renaissance. It grows, as such compositions inevitably must, out of Raphael’s “Disputa” and “School of Athens,” but it has fuller and more satisfactory color. Unlike these hemicycle compositions as a class, it is warm and appealing, without pose or frigidity. Like Raphael’s philosophers, these famous justiciaries move in a larger air than ours, yet keep their credibility and retain our sympathy. In monumentality and repose it seems to me to excel the best decoration of Delacroix, while it leaves the best of Puvis looking a little bleak and bloodless. The great fresco for Lincoln’s Inn was done, at the painter’s suggestion, for the costs, but the benchers insisted on adding a handsome testimonial. Watts characteristically declared his most accomplished and consistent work to be a failure, but in his later years he valued it, and its successful cleaning and preservation from London soot just before he died was a source of great satisfaction to him. It was his single venture in that mixed form which we may call pedantically typological design, it suggests what the “House of Life” might have been in its historic portions, and it serves as the transition from history to pure symbolism.
To the sixties belong the designs of the “Court of Death,” “Time, Death, and Judgment,” “The Genius of Greek Poetry,” “Ariadne in Naxos,” “Daphne,” and “Pygmalion.” The still more famous compositions, “Love and Death,” “Love and Life,” and “Hope,” belong to the seventies. And in the next decade, as he passed threescore and ten, an epic of Genesis, comprising the three Eves and the story of Cain, was partly executed, being a fragmentary episode of the “House of Life.” The last twenty years of his life were largely devoted to revising and perfecting the old designs, to increasing the gallery of great contemporaries, and to finishing his portrait statue of “Tennyson” for Lincoln, and the plaster model of the colossal horseman typifying “Physical Energy.” Only such general landmarks may be noted, since years often elapsed between the tracing of a composition on the canvas and its completion. The older he grew the closer became his dual allegiance to portraiture and pure symbolism, so that if one had to represent his maturity by two pictures, one might well choose the second “Hope” of 1885, sounding her broken harp among azure depths, and the magnificent “Walter Crane” of 1891.
Concerning the critic’s duty, Watts has left the following warning:
Critics usually fail because they do not regard art and literature from the same point of view, and as occupying the same level, seldom taking into account what the artist has to say, but only how he has said it. When a literary production is offered to the world, the first thing to be considered is, whether from a literary or historical or religious or scientific point of view it has any reason for existing at all, and after that its merits as a literary production. Until something of the kind is applied to art the critic can hardly be of service to the artist.
Accepting as I do this definition of the critic’s function, our chief concern is to weigh the value of the kind of thought and feeling in which Watts chose to live. But before raising this crucial matter certain technical questions may properly be faced. For if it be true that what counts is the greatness of the artist’s soul, it is also true that his means of _expression must be adequate. If those critics are right who assert that Watts’s handling is hesitant and bad, his design extravagant, his color lurid and inharmonious, why, then, whatever the seriousness of his inspiration, he remains a painter of minor order. His devotees must undergo the reproach of insensitiveness to fine painting as such, and his considerable vogue among the intellectuels of today may be reckoned a kind of sentimentalism.
As a matter of fact, I believe Watts was one of the few notable technicians of our day, in the sense of having a distinctive personal message of an important kind and of working out an individual and appropriate rhetoric. Men who pass as great modern technicians-for example, Whistler and Manet-have frequently been mainly dexterous and have left pictures that are already perishing. On the basal points of design Watts habitually practised the syncopated forms of representation which were proper to his heroic subjects and scale, and which for that matter he found in the Parthenon marbles and Titian. But Cezanne or Degas himself was not more scrupulous in indicating the essential differences between hard and soft, stiff and flexible. There is no uncertainty as to the movement, mass, and bony structure of a Watts figure. If he waived the modern fanatical emphasis of mass, it was because his purpose was decorative and moral, and not fully pictorial. In the easy and impressive adjustment of heroic forms within a rhythmical design he revived convincingly the grand manner of the High Renaissance. Certain summary indications of landscape in him are unique in art. His color has distinctive and beautiful traits. Certain blues seem the very sign of immensity; certain reds, of the perils that beset the soul, besides glowing intrinsically with the force of sapphire and carbuncle. And these effects of color in the major chord Watts obtained by setting dry color alongside of dry color without varnishing, glazing, or other hazardous and perishable manipulation. Nobody commanded the colors as he did. The “Hope” is as lovely an arrangement in blue as Cazin or Whistler ever conceived, with the advantage of its meaning to boot. I can think of no picture that rivals it on its own ground except another equally famous subject picture and equally precious in tone, Winslow Homer’s “Eight Bells.
In Watts’s portraiture the infinity of little touches has been objected to. But each stroke makes for vitality and character and luminousness. Set a good Watts portrait beside a good Bonnat, and it will be easy to see which has been done to death by painstaking, which enriched. In fact, the general disposition to see in Watts a feeble executant represents a common misunderstanding as to what fine technic in painting really is. The modern eye sets undue store by what it calls tone, meaning only the muted harmonies of color; and confuses fine brush work with mere dexterity. Now, of dexterity, Watts had, as he confessed himself, very little and increasingly less. In his later years he rarely could compass the suavity and directness of the sketch of Lady Somers and the portrait of Mrs. Wyndham. It was his belief that no solemn emotion could be ex-pressed by the swift and nervous handling so much in vogue. His method was consciously slow and deliberate, but assured and progressive. Where he failed, as it seems to me he did in the more florid “Eve,” in the urchin called “Whence-Whither ?” and in the more cadaverous and seer-like of the Tennyson portraits, the fault was in conception and not in execution. I can see that an eye trained to modern naturalistic color will resent a coloration that is conventional, decorative, and often symbolic, but I cannot conceive of anybody who has fairly grasped and accepted the intention of the portraits and compositions wishing them other than they are. And as to lack of dexterity, imagine our requiring it of a poet, setting him down as an incompetent because he lacks the swoop of the trained journalist. Yet some such exaction we do lay upon the painter, forgetting that dexterity, an excellent capacity in itself, is proper only to him whose subject-matter lends itself to swift choice, understanding, and execution. No, Watts was not dexterous, but in the resolute attack upon the fundamental problems of form and color, and in a solution personal, meaningful, and instinct with a peculiar solemn beauty, Watts may surely be ranked with the very few great technicians of his century.
By his own standards this would be doubtful praise. He held that only _expression counted, and that methods of _expression which obtrude themselves are bad. And, in fact, any fair estimate of Watts’s art implies, as I have said, a criticism of his entire stock of ideals. He represents a kind of mysticism, which, while alien to the ordinary man of his day, was characteristic of the finest spirits of the Victorian age. James Drummond, the evangelist; Tennyson, Matthew Arnold, Gladstone, Browning, George Eliot, Frederic Harrison, Ruskin, and less markedly Carlyle, illustrate various phases of a common tendency to identify religion with serious contemplation of social ethics. Most of these thinkers set a minimum value on cult and dogma and ecclesiastical tradition, proceeding to a kind of reconstruction of values in the light of social duty. This was the mood of Watts, and on more than one occasion he spoke of his works as “ethical reflections.” Such a life constitutes a sort of via media between self-sufficing faith in authority and the prevalent materialism. About the only religious discovery of the Victorian age was this middle course. The alternative seemed, perhaps falsely, to be sheer materialism-the orthodox scientific attitude. For the materialist, life is a curious chemistry, of which thought is a mechanical product and death the mere clogging. Sin and virtue are implied in physical reactions running back indefinitely through a widening group of ancestors. Hence, con-science is largely a morbid excess of memory. Love is simply a tardy product of sexual differentiation. Justice is what has on the whole proved tolerable and convenient in restraining the individual for the common weal. Soul is the capacity for maintaining the bodily chemistry, and is virtually uniform from the amoeba to Shakespeare. So, axiomatically, materialism explains the issues of life and death, and where it admits mystery it counsels indifference, since nothing has value for life which is not clearly knowable. Such is the orthodox scientific attitude with which the Victorian age had to cope, and it is fair to add that on such a basis a fine stoicism is possible.
But indifference, the mediaeval sin of accidia, was the most impossible vice for a true Victorian to acquire, and with few exceptions the finest spirits revolted vehemently against the simple materialistic formula for “seeing life as it is.” Some, with Cardinal Newman, reacted into obscurantism, more worked out the middle road of which Tennyson and Browning are the poets and Watts is the artist champion. To hold to the essentials of Christianity while divesting it of outworn mythology was the task, or, rather, to substitute for the old a new, human, and valid mythology, based upon the most general ideas. A poet indeed could stop short of the mythological stage. Great words and ideas suffice him. A painter must see his ideas in clear vision or keep them out of his art.
Watts saw them in exalted human form, and his gift was to be very clear in his generalities. It is significant that as convinced a Christian as he almost never treated a Biblical theme, and then only such as are most unspecific and broadly typical-Eve, Cain, the Good Samaritan. It was as if he would not compromise his faith by linking it with disputable matter of fact, nor cheapen sacred legend itself by a merely historic adherence. With regard to classical mythology, where symbolic values were overt and no issue of fact implied, he pursued a freer course. But his chief concern was to ascertain the elemental human values of his time, and to create therefor an appropriate mythology less vulnerable than the old. He conceived man as projected between the mysteries of “Life and Death” and sustained in his perilous transit by that summation of the virtues, “Love,” fortified, too, by the remembrance of such as have greatly loved and endeavored. So far his moral dynamic was that of his age. Where the great artist in him came out was in the imperious need of giving visible and human form to these simple elements of a spiritually contemplative life. Nowhere did he show himself more the artist than in his life-long dissent from the literalism of his friend Ruskin, and his vindication of the right of the soul to shadow forth its finest intimations by its own light. So he became a mythmaker-enduing with our own flesh the forces and ideals with which we must live-but of myths platonically simple and defensible. In his embodiments he sought the aid of those artists who have envisaged mankind with the most candid and hopeful eyes-Pheidias and Giorgione and Titian. Perhaps his chief significance is to have linked a peculiarly modern way of thinking with the noblest traditional forms of sculpture and painting. In energy of creation he was among the greatest artists of his century. Delacroix at times excels him, but is febrile and of shifting view-point. Against Watts’s energy of invention, a true furia for all its sweet reasonableness, the lovely retrospective idyllism of Burne-Jones and Puvis assumes a pallor of irreality. Rossetti’s mediaevalism looks flimsy, Besnard’s amazing and genial pyrotechnics seem merely theatrical. The men who best bear the comparison with him are those of wholly alien genius: masters of short-hand like Manet and Courbet and Winslow Homer, scornful stylists like Whistler and Degas, strenuous devotees of mass such as Cezanne. In creative accomplishment and valid relationship to the great art of old none seems to stand so well beside him as Millet, who, re-fining his actual observations into types, seems to represent a more normal exercise of the artistic spirit-more normal, possibly, only when viewed by our modern standards, for the way of Watts was very much that of the Greeks and the great Italians.
I have written vainly if any one confuses the eminently creative methods of Watts with the arid theological symbolism of the Middle Ages which it superficially recalls, or yet with the cheap symbolism of current decoration-the exuberant front of the Paris model as “Plenty,” her muscular back as “Industry.” This is merely a survival of the early eighteenth-century fashion of capitalizing all personified abstractions. From the model Watts made the most scrupulous studies, but when his great can-vases were in progress no model was present. He was a true visionary, but of the mind’s eye.
A kind of abstract vitality his compositions and portraits should always retain. His gift of embodying the finest essence of the individual soul and the bare elements of moral thinking should retain permanent value. His gallery of portraits alone will give permanency and dignity to what otherwise would pass chiefly for a shopkeeping and ironmongering age. The representative and Victorian value of his symbolic designs may well fluctuate, as men think well or ill of the Victorian via media. His art is not likely to confront a more materialistic age than that through which it won in his lifetime. Some more delicate moral adjustment than his own and that of his friend Tennyson the future may well have in store. Yet, even so, his mood was so elemental and warm that life should persist in it, so simple that it should readily adjust itself to other modes of thinking; while his concrete qualities of noble line and mass and splendid color and reflective handling are so eminent that they should ever appeal to the enlightened dilettante, if, indeed, the future is to keep a place for a type of detached enthusiasm of which Watts himself thoroughly disapproved.