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Dismembering George Frederic Watts’s ‘mesmeric dolls’: Music and Theosophy in the painter’s late works

13 Oct 2019
12:30

Dismembering George Frederic Watts’s ‘mesmeric dolls’: Music and Theosophy in the painter’s late works

Since David Stewart’s publication in 1993 on the impact of theosophical ideas on Frederic Watts’s (1817–1904) oeuvre, little scholarly attention has been directed toward the affinity between these ideas and the evolution of the painter’s late style. Indeed, Watt’s late paintings, which evinced a certain tendency toward the dissolution of form through hazy and evanescent auras, have often been regarded to depict ‘mesmeric dolls’ (Arthur Symons). Drawing on archival research carried out at the Watts Gallery in Compton as well as on scholarly works discussing the historical presuppositions that enabled the cross-fertilization between theosophical or heterodox religious movements and painters, I would like to illuminate the way Watts wove together theosophical or other religious ideas —such as those expressed by the Greek priest and philosopher Theophilos Kairis— with scientific theories on sonorous and luminous vibrations. More specifically, I would like to contend that, through the novelist Emilie Barrington, Watts had been acquainted with the experiments carried out around 1890 by the Welsh soprano Margaret Watts-Hughes (1842-1907). Respectively, Frederic Watts often described the draperies of the ancient statues or fragments as “tremulous, palpitating beauty […] music of form, light and colour”. However, Watts-Hughes’s experiments and Watts’s formal innovations were both underlined by specific religious convictions that held sound as a visual manifestation of God’s act of weaving the cosmos and, on a deeper level, society as a field where art could offer alternatives to restrictive political attitudes and outworn practices.