George Frederick Watts: Hope

George Frederick Watts (1817-1904) was a Victorian English painter and sculptor associated with the Symbolist Movement. Forsyth notes that for Watts, ‘Art . . . is a branch of sacred hermeneutics’ (Religion in Recent Art, 88). ‘Let natural beauty be what it may, artistic beauty is higher. And why? because it is spiritual. Because you have in Art the finished product of which Nature is but the initial stage’ (ibid., p. 89). Art is nature ‘born again’ and ‘is to Nature what salvation is to the soul’ (ibid., 90).

Though Watts shares a Victorian fascination with death, Forsyth asserts that this fascination with death is not to be condemned as morbid since ‘Like Art itself, Death is one of the great interpreters and expanders of life’ (ibid., 98). Forsyth writes that of the artists of his day, ‘Mr. Watts is our only artist who is capable of wrestling with death and therefore the only one who understands life’ (ibid., 130). For beyond death Watts has seen the power of love triumphant and has recognised in death itself ‘the arm of the Lord and the shadow of His wing’ (ibid., 115). His work therefore expresses a truly ‘supernatural hope’.

In one of his best known works, ‘Hope’, Watts pictures a blind folded woman sitting on what we take to be the world. She embraces a lyre of which every string is broken … but one. Above, the sky entertains a single star. With its blues and greys, the work is reminiscent of some of Picasso’s blue period works, such as his ‘Tragedy‘.

But is Watts depicting despair or something else? Forsyth argues that here in this work we have the depiction not of hope itself, but certainly of one who hopes. Like her Victorian Age, she has conquered the world, and yet such conquering has brought her neither joy, peace or power. She has turned her face away from ‘heaven’s light’ ‘and now, with earth searched and heaven to explore, her gaze is not up but down, her heaven-searching power of faith is quenched’. But quenched does not mean despair, for ‘the thirst to believe is still there. Look how the darkened soul stoops and strains for the one string’s note, for the one voice to tell her a gospel that all her achievement has not yet attained, and all the round and mastered world cannot promise. The soul has in its own self and nature a note that Nature has not. But is that note of nature only in the soul? Is it a subjective dream of its own? Is there any promise in the ‘not-ourselves’? . . . Yes, there is one star, though the poor soul sees it not. The painter sees it, and we see it. A star is there and a dim dawn.’ (Religion in Recent Art, 108).


  1. I’ve just found this website by accident. You seem like a very interesting theologian who has much of value to say. I noticed on a post that you left on the Faith and theology blog that you’re a Forde fan. Interestingly enough, I’m currently writing a dissertation on Forde’s doctrine of atonement at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in the US. I meet Forde many times when I was in seminary, because he attended my church. I will be interested to investigate Forsyth in the future.


  2. I am heartened by this, never-before-seen-by me painting by Watts. To me, a classical pianist, it IS a symbol of what hope is. The straining for the slightest sound of the remaining string on the lyre……perfect…..a more-than-adequate depiction of what HOPE is…..from which, I understand, Barack Obama took his title, The Audacity of Hope, after hearing a sermon on it by his then-minister, Jeremiah Wright. This painting should be in ALL OUR HOMES…..wish I had a print. Sonni Olsen.


  3. Isn’t this a musician – us – trying to interpret the world through our art but finding no revelation of what is real below; rather it is man’s interpretations that have misused the very earth that we must rely upon for support. Very homocentric! Obviously not a Victorian view of the picture but rather my sense of how broken and unrelated we are like the strings of the lyre…we have but one left…


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