Sunday, October 3, 2010

G. F. Watts: Twilight of the Gods

G. F. Watts, The Minotaur, 1896

George Frederick Watts (1817 – 1904) painted The Minotaur late in his career.

He was the son of a poor piano tuner who died when the artist was a child. His paintings became increasingly personal, intimate, and somewhat dark as time went on.

G. F. Watts, Hope, 1884

The Minotaur was a monster, half man and half bull, whom the fabled Greek king Minos imprisoned in a cunningly designed maze on the island of Crete. Scholars believe that the pre-Hellenic culture that thrived there furnished the basis for the myth of Atlantis.

Some have seen in Watts's Minotaur an embodiment of "the greed and lust associated with modern civilisations" (Tate Museum). But I have always responded to the dreamy sense of melancholy in the creature's gaze over the ramparts of the maze toward an indistinct horizon in the distance.

It's the only painting I know that portrays the mythical being with pathos. Watts's inclusion of the minotaur's eyelashes and his blank, slack-jawed expression humanize the beast, and because its back is turned toward us, we are invited to occupy his position and point of view.

G.F. Watts, Endymion

Watts's late paintings are decidedly Symbolist, devoted to classical allusion and, finally, to expressive, nearly abstract visions of universal forces oscillating between a Darwinian understanding of human nature and a mystical yearning for spiritual fulfillment. As Odilon Redon said of his own works, they "inspire, and are not to be defined. They place us, as does music, in the ambiguous realm of the undetermined.”

G.F. Watts, The Sower of Systems, 1902

In this Watts was a quintessential artist of Victorian England - and a kindred spirit for travelers in the twilight borderlands of modernity.


  1. I love the "Sower of Systems." It represents, to me the way art or myth can cover the same ground as science. This image might almost have come from the Hubbel Space Telescope. It invites us to ponder the "big questions."

  2. Andrew, I agree - In fact, referring to the "systems" (by which I feel he meant the whole of the animate universe) Watts described it as "the immeasurable expanse," a phrase immediately suggests the infinite vastness of space and that to me implies the ultimately unknowable nature of human consciousness (that which is at the root of science, our insatiable drive TO KNOW. These are big questions indeed. With Watts's later imagery, art becomes the sacred meeting ground of science and dream, knowledge and imagination, mythology, spirituality, and religion.

  3. the minotaur looks like he's on the deck of the titanic :) (in the first pic)
    great post