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George Frederic Watts


George Frederic Watts (1817–1904) was an important British artist as early as the 1840s. He was known for his metaphorical subjects, and by the end of the century his output was showing increasing Symbolist elements. For Watts, being an artist meant fulfilling a higher calling. ”I paint ideas not things,” he proclaimed.

Watts was born in London, the son of a piano-maker. He was taught sculpture from the age of ten by William Behnes and enrolled at the Royal Academy Schools when he was eighteen. In 1843 he won first prize in a competition to design a mural decoration for the new Houses of Parliament at Westminster. He used the money to make an extended trip to Italy, where he painted his first landscapes. He returned to London in 1847 and began work on a grand fresco, The House of Life. Although never completed, this became his life’s project and many of his works related to it. He was closely associated with Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the English Aesthetic movement, before developing his own personal and often esoteric Symbolism, influenced by the philosophy of Max Müller, the founder of comparative religion, and Darwin’s theory of evolution.

In 1864 Watts married the celebrated actress Ellen Terry, thirty years his junior, whom he soon divorced. He later married the Scottish designer and potter Mary Fraser-Tytler and in 1891 moved to Compton, near Guildford, Surrey.