Watts-Obama; or, The Relevance of Victorian Art

George Frederic Watts and assistants, Hope, 1886. Oil on canvas, 142.2 x 111.8 cm. Tate. This is the second version of Hope Watts painted; the first version is owned by the Watts Gallery, Surrey.

On the Pre-Raphaelite Reflections Facebook page I recently made a short post about the surprising connection between George Frederic Watts and Barack Obama. A line can be traced from Watts’s iconic 1886 painting Hope (above), through sermons delivered by two American pastors in the late 20th century, to Obama’s keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in 2004 with its central message of ‘the audacity of hope’, which was also the title of the US President’s second book published in 2006.

In the end, that’s what this election is about. Do we participate in a politics of cynicism or a politics of hope? […] It’s the hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs; the hope of immigrants setting out for distant shores; the hope of a young naval lieutenant bravely patrolling the Mekong Delta; the hope of a millworker’s son who dares to defy the odds; the hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too. Hope in the face of difficulty. Hope in the face of uncertainty. The audacity of hope!

Of course I’m not the first to notice this connection: Alastair Sooke reported it for The Telegraph in 2008 in an article titled Barack Obama’s favourite painting, while I myself discovered the Watts-Obama link on a Wikipedia entry. It’s fascinating to consider that a Victorian Symbolist painting may have influenced the thinking of the most powerful political figure in the world. It feels almost like a victory; a compelling validation of Victorian art’s continuing (some might say surprising) relevance in the modern era.

On the other hand, it’s more likely that it wasn’t the painting itself that inspired Obama, but the message behind it. After all Hope is an allegory, intended to express or embody universal truths and conditions that anyone can recognise, regardless of their race, sex, faith or class. Obama may be proving Watts’s argument that an artwork can withstand the tests of time and can communicate its moral content to any era, thereby generating its own relevance. In the speech quoted above, the President similarly uses archetypal figures from the American consciousness, both historical and modern – the slave, the immigrant, the Vietnam soldier, the poor man – and interweaves them with promises of freedom, courage and of course hope. The line ‘Hope in the face of uncertainty’ could just as easily describe the situation of the blindfolded woman in Watts’s melancholy painting, perching uncomfortably on her globe and listening to the faint song from the last remaining string of her lute. It’s the perseverance of the human spirit in times of desolation; we are reminded that after Pandora opened the fatal box and released death, disease and general evil into the world, the one thing that remained was Hope.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Pandora, 1878. Coloured chalks on paper, 100.8 x 66.7 cm. National Museums Liverpool. The Latin inscription on the box, ‘Ultima manet spes’, translates as ‘Hope remains last’.

Many Victorian artists used their work to address key social and political issues – even the Pre-Raphaelites, who many people still regard as categorically backward-looking and removed from the troubles of their time. But the relevance of Victorian art in the present day is equally interesting to discover and consider.

Nameless and Friendless. "The rich man's wealth is his strong city, etc." - Proverbs, x, 15 1857 by Emily Mary Osborn 1828-1925
Emily Mary Osborne, Nameless and Friendless. ‘The rich man’s wealth is his strong city, etc.’ – Proverbs, x, 15, 1857. Oil on canvas, 82.5 x 103.8 cm. Tate.

For example, the themes underlying Emily Mary Osborne’s Nameless and Friendless from 1857 resonate with viewers today, with Osborne highlighting ‘the predicament of the single woman in the modern metropolis’. The woman artist has arrived at a dealer’s to offer her painting to the scrutiny of a male-dominated art world – a situation that has changed little, as the Guerrilla Girls vocalised in their 1989 poster (below). Her position is contrasted with the affluent woman and child exiting the shop behind her, who came to purchase an artwork as a luxury instead of having to sell one out of financial necessity. The woman is stared at uncomfortably from behind by two men who have been examining a picture of a ballerina. The ballerina might represent a male fantasy of ideal femininity that the nameless woman, dressed in her heavy mourning clothes and harshly lit from above, cannot fulfil. Osborne’s painting, then, is one of vulnerability and inequality, with little sense of hope or change; we predict that the dealer examining the woman’s picture will turn her away, perhaps on the mere grounds that it has been painted by a woman.

Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into the Met. Museum? 1989 by Guerrilla Girls
Guerrilla Girls, Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?, 1989. Screenprint on paper, 28 x 7.1 cm. Tate.

The Pre-Raphaelites have been the subject of growing scholarly interest in the past decade or so. But it should be emphasised that the public appreciation of Pre-Raphaelite art has never dwindled. Millais’s Ophelia, Waterhouse’s Lady of Shalott, Rossetti’s The Beloved, Hunt’s Light of the World and of course the designs of William Morris and Burne-Jones, still grip the imaginations of the British public. By contrast, institutions in the US still tend to favour Impressionism as the nineteenth-century art movement of choice, with only a handful of museums – Delaware, Harvard and the Legion of Honor at San Francisco, for example – actually owning any Pre-Raphaelite artworks. Roberta Smith wrote a particularly biting review in the New York Times about the Tate’s Pre-Raphaelite exhibition when it toured to the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, in 2013:

If you are genuinely interested in art and emerge from this show thinking that you have seen scores of outstanding paintings, you should spend more time studying other examples. For comparison the galleries adjacent to this exhibition contain two outstanding works by the Pre-Raphaelites’ French contemporaries, Eduard Manet’s ‘Dead Toreador’ (probably 1864) and Paul Cézanne’s portrait of his father reading a newspaper (1866). Consider the simplicity, directness and mysteries of these paintings against the moralizing and endless intricacies of the Pre-Raphaelites. It is a contrast between the complex and the merely complicated.

Clearly Impressionism is better suited to New York intellectualism than Pre-Raphaelitism. That the title of the Tate exhibition was changed from the bold Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde to the more muted Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Art and Design, 1848–1900 for its US opening, speaks volumes about the perception of the Pre-Raphaelites as a fairly quaint and only mildly innovative group of artists and writers, with no radical intentions. To say nothing of how they rallied against establishment art principles, embraced the new science of photography, painted outdoors and chose to depict scenes of modern society – 10 years before the Impressionists in France.

Is the Victorian lineage of Barack Obama’s ‘audacity of hope’ speech just a happy coincidence?