All though the 20th century the only 19th century art that counted in critical orthodoxy was art that had sniffed the air of the boulevards. A taste for someone like Rossetti was allowable- just so long as all proportions were kept and the devotee acknowledged that Rossetti- amusing, eccentric, intermittently powerful- wasn't to be considered on the same page as his continental contemporaries. The narrative of European art ran through Courbet, Manet, Monet and Cezanne. Anything aside from that royal road was merely quaint- and good for an avuncular chuckle.
But if Watts is so marginal, how come he and Rodin feel like they belong together? How come you can feel his influence in Picasso, in Henry Moore, in Stanley Spencer, in the surrealists, in the abstract expressionists? Or maybe it's not influence, maybe its more like prophecy. But whatever you want to call it, it's there. Watts isn't a distant, weakchinned cousin; he's an ancestor.
And now here's Barack Obama declaring that Watts' Hope is his favourite painting. And in the wake of this we're being told that Nelson Mandela had a reproduction of it pinned up in his cell on Robben island. These history-makers didn't choose Monet, they didn't choose Pollock, they didn't even choose Picasso. They chose Watts.
Hope is a strange, strange painting. Ambiguous. G.K. Chesterton said it might just as well have been called Despair. A blindfold figure sits on a globe, touching the last remaining string of a lyre, bending close to hear it, to feel the vibe. It's one of those images- like Dali's soft watches or Warhol's soup cans- and once you've seen it, you're not likely to forget it. And it's not just an image. It's also beautifuly painted. Even those who have belittled Watts for his ambition, for not being French, for his patriarchal, Victorian beard have conceded that he really knew how to sling paint- that he's tactile, rich, Titianesque.
So, an iconic image, beautifuly executed- still serving as a source of inspiration to great men a century and more after it was created- how is this not a great painting and it's maker a great artist?
I'm not going to reproduce it here. It's all over the media right now and if you haven't already seen it, you can easily track it down. Instead here's The Minotaur- an equally powerful image, painted as a protest against child prositution. The minotaur, great clumsy brute, peers out from some tower of his labyrinth, with a crushed songbird in his fist. But Watts is too great a painter to be merely propagandist. This isn't just an ugly-wugly. Like all great monsters- like Karloff's Frankenstein's monster, like Charles Laughton's Quasimodo- it is also pitiable and pathetic and lonely.
And here's Watts' Orpheus and Eurydice. You know the myth. The poet brings his wife almost all the way back from the kingdom of the dead only to lose her at the very last step. It's the most poignant story in classical mythology- and - well- you don't need me rabbiting on about it to see how wonderful and moving a painting this is.