Twice, in 1885 and 1894, the artist refused, for private reasons, the baronetcy that other artists had accepted. He lived henceforth and died the untitled patriot and artist, George Frederick Watts.
THE MAN AND THE MESSENGER
Having given in the preceding pages the briefest possible outline of the life of Watts as a man amongst men, we are now able to come to closer quarters. He was essentially a messenger—a teacher, delivering to the world, in such a manner that his genius and temperament made possible, ideas which had found their place in his mind. He would have been the first to admit that without these ideas he would be less than nothing.
If it were possible to bring together all the external acts of the painter’s life, his journeyings to and fro, his making and his losing friends, we should have insufficient data to enable us to understand Watts’ message; his great ambitions, his constant failures, his intimate experiences, his reflections and determinations—known to none but himself—surely these, the internal life of Watts, are the real sources of his message? True, he was in the midst of the nineteenth century, breathing its atmosphere, familiar with the ideals of its great men, doubting, questioning, and hoping with the rest. To him, as to many a contemporary stoic, the world was in a certain sense an alien ground, and mortal life was to be stoically endured and made the best of. It is impossible to believe, however, that this inspiring and prophetic painter reproduced and handed on merely that which his time and society gave him. His day and his associates truly gave him much; the past and his heredity made their contributions; but we must believe that the purest gold was fired in the crucible of his inner experience, his joys and his sufferings. In him was accomplished that great discovery which the philosophers have called Pessimism; he not only saw in other men (as depicted in his memorable canvas of 1849), but he experienced in himself the transitory life’s illusions. To Watts, the serious man of fifty years, Love and Death, Faith and Hope, Aspiration, Suffering, and Remorse, were not, as to the eighteenth-century rhymester, merely Greek ladies draped in flowing raiment; to him they were realities, intensely focussed in himself. Watts was giving of himself, of his knowledge and observation of what Love is and does, and how Death appears so variously; and who but a man who knew the melancholy of despair could paint that picture “Hope”?
Immediately after the central crisis of his personal life appeared the canvas entitled “Fata Morgana,” illustrative of a knight in vain pursuit of a phantom maiden; and before long there was from his brush the pictured story of a lost love, “Orpheus and Eurydice,” one of the saddest of all myths, but, one feels, no old myth to him.