Watts painted landscapes for his own pleasure throughout his life, but began to take them seriously only in his old age. They are his among greatest works, I suggest, since I believe he succeeded in painting the invisible and spiritual. Green Summer was painted in the garden at Limnerslease, the house he and his wife built on the Surrey Downs. It is an extraordinary picture, taller than it is wide. The upper half is light — a deep blue sky and a towering reddish cloud. The bottom half is dark green shot through with the brown bark of firs. The two halves are joined by a tall dead and almost limbless pine. At its top an untidy nest of wind-broken branches stitches tree to cloud, earth to sky. Below is the life of the world; fir, moss and lichen. The eye can walk through the woods, between the trees, up the slope, down into the glade, because the eye carries the mind, and mind feels it is carrying the body physically into that sun-dappled green space. Then the dead pine raises the eye to the living cloud. The eye follows death to the blue of heaven. And you realise you have been shown the invisible, something has been revealed, something greater than we are and beyond us but which is almost, but not quite, unreachable.
Sunset on the Alps is a painting done from a memory of a glimpse from a train of a peak in the High Savoy at a place called (in English) The Rock on the (River) Faron. There is a pale peak and a giant crimson cloud enveloping and rearing above it, roughly of the same shape. As you look, the peak seems to become paler and more insignificant until it is barely a peak at all, being something even less than an eroding bit of rock. At first the cloud can seem to be a figure full of red life reaching out protectively to embrace the world; the peak is puny, putty-coloured and ephemeral compared to it. The peak will be there in a thousand years, the cloud will be gone in hours, its colour faded in minutes as the sun sets. But in its evanescence we see eternity, not in the cold rock.
End of the Day was painted in 1903 when Watts was eighty-six. It is framed by one fully foliaged tree and a sparser birch. A great splodge of red is separated by the dark green of a hill. The upper patch is a vermilion cloud. The lower is a crimson path. Perhaps it is September; summer is about to go, Autumn has not yet begun. It has rained; the path is partially washed out. The path is a diagonal but it doesn�t draw us along it into the dark trees. Instead we�re drawn along the other, broader, diagonal - the light that leads into and beyond the living-red sky. Nor do we feel we are laboriously walking along it; we glide effortlessly in what is the artist�s final portrayal of the invisible.
Watts usually finds the eternal and spiritual in our common daily landscapes. Only a few of his paintings have Biblical themes. The Return of the Dove is of course based on the story of Noah�s flood. The dove is flying back with the olive twig, proof that the waters are subsiding. It is long and wide painting, in muted colours: a dark sea and a line of ochre cloud and a sky of a kind of brown-grey with a hint of blue. The dove is on the far right and seen at an angle from behind, with wings outstretched and a friendly eye, heading back for the ark which must sailing on the rain water sea beyond the curve of the earth. Nothing else is visible save this sombre sea and sky. But it carries a powerful religious charge, a kind of spiritual thunderbolt. This not an evening before a new day, it is the final evening before Eternity. We see that day dawning in After the Deluge: the Forty-First Day. Pictorially it is simple — there is a line of brown and a line of green and above them the canvas is nearly filled with a great swirling orange disc of a sun that is also not the sun but is God in power and glory. And that is what the mind sees.
- Concepts and Compassion: the Idea-Paintings of George Frederic Watts
- The Portrait Paintings of George Frederic Watts
Staley, Alan, and Hilary Underwood. Painting the Cosmos: Landscapes by G F Watts. Compton (Surrey): The Watts Gallery, 2006.
Last modified 8 October 2006