‘Hope’ by George Frederic Watts

Eloise – Year 12 Student

Author’s Note: I decided to enter the Write on Art competition as it was like nothing I had ever done before and, after attending a school talk on Art History a couple of months prior by Griselda Pollock, I decided to give it a go. Then was the task of choosing a piece to write about. After looking at a few different pieces, I decided to choose ‘Hope’ by George Frederic Watts as I was intrigued by the clear juxtaposition between the imagery and title of the piece and wanted to research it more. I wanted my work to present the universality and timelessness the message behind artwork could have and this was the perfect piece, inspiring people throughout history from all over the world. This painting can be interpreted in so many ways, having a personalised message to every person, which is why I love it and why I loved researching into its history. Eloise

‘Hope’ by George Frederic Watts. Wikipedia Commons – labelled for reuse.

‘Hope’ depicts a blindfolded woman seated, hunched on a globe, bending her neck to listen closely to the lyre, which is completely frayed but for one string.2 

The atmosphere is one of loneliness and serenity. She is alone, blindfolded to the world,  isolated, but still clasping onto the beauty of faint music. She dares to have hope in the last remaining string.  

This is the second version of ‘Hope’ Watts painted where he eliminated the star above the figure. It was painted just after his daughter’s death, so we could speculate that the painting reflects Watts’ feelings as he grasps onto the last positives. Her stance is reminiscent of Albert Moore’s ‘A Sleeping Girl’3 and Rossetti’s Siren in ‘A Sea Spell’, which also depicts Siren with a lyre, enticing sailors to their deaths, similarly, representing a final hope.  

The darker, cold-toned hues in the background reflect the atmosphere of sadness, which juxtapose the painting’s title and bring attention to the focal point and the hope she embodies. It is enhanced by the soft brushwork, especially in the material of the rags with the endless folds. There is a focus on this element of the painting as it reflects the roughness of her life but how she still focuses on the positives. The darker shadowing on the peripheral horizon produces a haze which encompasses her, through the use of sfumato and scumbling. This contrasts with the lighter region in the middle, portraying a message of hope in tenebrosity.  

Watts uses features not typically representative of hope and in doing so keeps the meaning of the painting ambiguous and open to interpretation. This was typical of the symbolism art movement which succeeded impressionism.4 Here, a realistic depiction of the world was rejected in favour of a more allegoric depiction of it shown by Watts’ comment, ‘I paint ideas, not things’5 6. This painting, among others, forms a collection, ‘House of Life’7 which represents the hardships and prosperity of life in a universal language.   

Critics have suggested that the subjects’ attempt to make music is pointless and suggest that a more appropriate title for the piece would be ‘Despair’8. They fail to see that the title reflects the idea that in a world of negatives we should try to remain positive.  

Former US President Barack Obama. Flickr – labelled for reuse.

I was intrigued as to how the message of ‘Hope’ could influence people today, confirming Watts’ message as universal and timeless. This is when I found out about the influence that it had upon [Barack] Obama’s life, inspiring the message of his presidential campaign of 20089 10and the iconic ‘Hope’ poster11. Obama wanted a world in which people were able to dream and hope. Watts’ influence is further shown through Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1959 sermon known as ‘Shattered Dreams’ which reflected ‘Hope’ through the idea of clinging onto the only positives you have even though the world seems to be full of negatives. He pleads for people to see the suffering they were causing African-Americans through unjust persecution and to learn from stories told in the Bible where figures had to ‘accept finite disappointment and yet cling to infinite hope’12 13.  

Watts’ message through his work in ‘Hope’ is one of aspiration and bravery, daring to clasp onto the most important aspects of life, even when it may seem to be shattering around us. Not only is this piece universal, inspiring people from all around the world, but it is timeless, its messages inspiring some of the most influential contemporary figures, reflecting the emphasis that Watts had on personal interpretation and ambiguity of meaning.    

Eloise

References

1 Fröhlich, Fabian. “George Frederic Watts, Hope.” Blindbild, http://www.blindbild.com/london-tate-britain-september-2016/tate-britain-watts/.
2 “Hope (Painting).” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 26 Jan. 2020, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hope_(painting).
3 Tate. “’A Sleeping Girl’, Albert Moore, C.1875.” Tate, 31 Dec. 1874, http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/moore-a-sleeping-girl-t04877.

4 Tate. “Symbolism – Art Term.” Tate, http://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/s/symbolism.
5 “George Frederic Watts.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 5 Mar. 2020,
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Frederic_Watts.
6 Tate. “George Frederic Watts 1817-1904.” Tate, 1 Jan. 1886,
http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/george-frederic-watts-586.
7 Tate. “’Hope’, George Frederic Watts and Assistants, 1886.” Tate, 1 Jan. 1886,
http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/watts-hope-n01640.
8 Watts, Frederic. “Hope.” Tate, Tate, 1 Jan. 2013, http://www.tate.org.uk/art/researchpublications/
the-sublime/george-frederic-watts-hope-r1105604.
9 “The Painter Who Altered Obama’s Life.” The Independent, Independent Digital News and
Media, 23 Oct. 2011, http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/features/thepainter-
who-altered-obamas-life-1022920.html.
10 Sooke, Alastair. “Barack Obama’s Favourite Painting.” The Telegraph, Telegraph Media
Group, 13 Nov. 2008, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/3563194/Barack-Obamasfavourite-
painting.html.
11 “Barack Obama ‘Hope’ Poster.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 21 Feb. 2020,
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barack_Obama_%22Hope%22_poster.

12 “Draft of Chapter X, ‘Shattered Dreams.’” The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and
Education Institute, 1 June 2017, kinginstitute.stanford.edu/kingpapers/
documents/draft-chapter-x-shattered-dreams.
13 “Hope.” Words + Images, 15 Dec. 2016, wordsandimagesbycynthia.com/2016/12/15/hope-
2/.

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