Victorian Painting

The picture is one of a series of allegorical subjects which Watts intended for a decorative scheme known as the 'House of Life'. Traditionally the figure of Hope is identified by an anchor, but Watts was seeking a fresher, more original approach. He painted blind Hope seated on a globe and playing on a lyre which has all its strings broken except one. She bends her head to listen to the faint music, but her efforts appear forlorn; the overall atmosphere is one of sadness and desolation rather than hope. The picture's sense of melancholy is enhanced by the soft brushwork and the translucent mists that envelop the floating globe.

Watts appears to have drawn on several contemporary sources for the figure of Hope. Her pose is comparable to Rossetti's siren in A Sea Spell of 1877 (Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University) and also recalls Albert Moore's sleeping women in Dreamers (1882, Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery). The bandaged head, denoting blindness, may be linked to the allegorical figure of Fortune in Burne-Jones's The Wheel of Fortune (c.1871, Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery, Carlisle), which was once owned by Watts.

Watts painted two versions of Hope. The original is in a private collection; this version was painted as a replica and presented to Tate in 1897. [...] Watts believed the second picture to be the better version and exhibited it at the South Kensington Museum and at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1889. This version is softer in execution and the girl wears a more enigmatic expression on her face. Watts also omitted the star, the only note of optimism, at the top of the picture.

It has been suggested that the mood of desolation may reflect Watt's own sadness at the death of his adopted daughter Blanche's one-year old child. Despite its sense of gloom, the picture was well received and proved extremely popular with the public. The artists F.G. Stephens called Hope a "piece of tone harmony" (Athenaeum, 24 April 1888, p.561), inviting comparisons with the work of Whistler and the Aesthetic movement.

Frances Fowle, Hope, Catalogue entry from the Tate Gallery, December 2000.

George Frederic Watts (1817-1904), Hope, 1886
oil on canvas, 142.2 x 111.8 cm
Tate Gallery, London

Wikipedia. Hope is a Symbolist oil painting by George Frederic Watts, two versions of which were completed in 1886. The painting was intended to form part of a series of allegorical paintings by Watts entitled the "House of Life".
The painting by George Frederic Watts shows a female allegorical figure of Hope. Hope is traditionally identifiable through the attribute of an anchor, but Watts took a more original approach. In his painting, she is depicted sitting on a globe, blindfolded, clutching a wooden lyre with only one string left intact. She sits in a hunched position, with her head leaning towards the instrument, perhaps so she can hear the faint music she can make with the sole remaining string. According to Watts, "Hope need not mean expectancy. It suggests here rather the music which can come from the remaining chord". The desolate atmosphere is emphasised by Watts's soft brushwork, creating a misty, ethereal scene, in tones of green, brown and grey. Watts's melancholy depiction of hope was criticised (G. K. Chesterton, for instance, suggested that a better title would be Despair).

Augustus Leopold Egg (1816-1863), Past and Present, No. 1, 1858
oil on canvas, 63.5 x 76.2
Tate Gallery, London

This is the first of a set of three modern-life pictures on the theme of the fallen woman. The other two are also in the Tate collection. They are typical of the social moralist pictures that were popular in Victorian art.

The theme of the triptych is the discovery of the woman's infidelity and its consequences. In this first scene the wife lies prostrate at her husband's feet, while he sits grimly at the table and their children (the older girl modelled by William Frith's daughter) play cards in the background. The husband is holding a letter, evidence of his wife's adultery, and simultaneously crushes a miniature of her lover under his foot. The setting is an ordinary middle-class drawing room, but closer observation reveals that the room is full of symbols. Egg was clearly influenced in his approach by Holman Hunt's The Awakening Conscience of 1853 (Manchester City Art Galleries). The house of cards is collapsing, signifying the breakdown of the couple's marriage. The cards are supported by a novel by Balzac - a specialist in the theme of adultery. An apple has been cut in two, the one half (representing the wife) has fallen to the floor, the other (representing the husband) has been stabbed to the core. As a parallel, the two pictures on the wall depict the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden (labelled The Fall); and a shipwreck by Clarkson Stanfield (labelled Abandoned). The couple's individual portraits hang beneath the appropriate image.

In the background of the picture the mirror reflects an open door, denoting the woman's impending departure from the home. The position of her arms and the bracelets round her wrists give the impression that she is shackled. In Victorian England a man could safely take a mistress without fear of recrimination, but for a woman to be unfaithful was an unforgivable crime. As Caroline Norton, an early feminist, wrote, "the faults of women are visited as sins, the sins of men are not even visited as faults" (Lionel Lambourne, Victorian Painting, London 1999, p. 374).

Frances Fowle, Past and Present, No. 1, Catalogue entry from the Tate Gallery, December 2000.

William Quiller Orchardson (1832-1910), The First Cloud, 1887
oil on canvas, 83.2 x 121.3 cm
Tate Gallery, London

This is the last of three pictures by Orchardson that focus on the theme of the unhappy marriage. The first two in the series, Mariage de Convenance (1883, Glasgow Museums) and Mariage à la Mode - After! (1886, Aberdeen Art Gallery) depict the disadvantages of marrying for wealth rather than for love. The elderly husband is soon abandoned by his bored young wife. In The First Cloud, the marriage is still based on an exchange of her beauty for his wealth, but the age gap is less noticeable. However, without love, the relationship lacks any firm foundation, and this first rift between the couple is merely the cloud before the storm. The picture was first exhibited at the Royal Academy with these lines from Tennyson:

'It is the little rift within the lute
That by-and-by will make the music mute.'

The setting, as with so many of Orchardson's costume dramas, is an elegant Victorian drawing room. The wife retires from the room through a pillared arch, her graceful form silhouetted against the dark opening in the curtains. Although she turns her back to us (and to her husband) her face is vaguely reflected in a mirror in the dark room beyond. This figure was modeled by a Mrs Hope, one of a family of very beautiful sisters. For the husband Orchardson used a close friend, the artist Tom Graham. He stands by the mantelpiece, looking extremely disgruntled, and possibly rather drunk, his hands thrust in his pockets. The psychological rift that has grown between the couple is emphasized physically by the empty expanse of parquet flooring that separates them. The colours are typically muted: cool creams, pastel pinks and blues, alongside Orchardson's favorite colour combination of yellow and brown, which the French critic Ernest Chesneau described as 'harmonious as the wrong side of a tapestry.' (Christopher Wood, Victorian Painting, London 1999, p. 257).

Frances Fowle, The First Cloud, Catalogue entry from the Tate Gallery, October 2000.