The Speaker, July 9, 1904
The first impulse of any serious person on hearing that G. F. Watts is dead must of necessity be an impulse to say, as we said of Gladstone, "All the great are dying." This is not mere journalese, it is a genuine impression, and in one sense it is true: there are none left who carry themselves as these great men did. But there is a danger in this mode of speech, and also an error; for in it is involved the very evil of this age, out of which its littleness comes. There are many evils in this particular period of ours. One of the worst, doubtless, is that we never produce great men; but the worst of all is that we are always looking for them. The men of the great time of Watts did not look for great men, but for great causes; and in a great cause almost anyone may become great. There are none left who carry themselves as these heroes did, because there are none left who are so indifferent to mere intellectual eminence. Watts and such men as he were the children of the great republican revelation which began the nineteenth century, which filled men with a furious belief in humanity and was the latest of the religions of mankind. They were great men because they did not believe in great men; they believed in men. They mingled in a common and equal competition of enthusiasm for something outside individual men, and out of that only comes real individuality. They sought first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness; they sought first the important things, and trifles— such as greatness and genius— were added unto them.
We shall not have again a man of the greatness of Watts until we have something better to think about than greatness. One thing at any rate stands out of his whole character; one thing must be burningly vivid to anybody who ever had, even as briefly as I had, the honour of meeting him: that he himself cared for the thing called greatness not a single straw. He cared only for the spread of certain conceptions, true or false, with which he had identified himself. He quoted to me, with an honest vanity, cases of poor travellers and obscure correspondents who had spoken or written to him, telling him that they had been inspired or comforted by what he had meant by "hope" or "dawn" or "love and life." Of what the established critics thought he meant he was not conscious. He was conscious of compliment only when it was a compliment to his cause; not when it was an insult to his cause and a compliment merely to him. He belongs in this matter, beyond question, to an age of causes, and will therefore be found in this matter incredible. If our civilisation pursues its present course (which is absurd) he will become in a very short time a heroic myth.
The note of this greatness of his was well expressed in his artistic work, especially his artistic work in early years. Sometimes his work was admirable, sometimes bad, but it was always simple and it was always ambitious. The technique of art is so far from being immoral that a moral transition can be quite easily deduced from it: moral changes can be seen physically in chalk and oil. And one great fact is this: that all the great men younger than Watts sought to work in a style and scheme that was of its nature transient. They wished to decorate a room with peacocks, for rooms are tired of and taken down, or to fill a paper with epigrams, for epigrams are repeated nine hundred and ninety times and then forgotten, or to effect exquisite sketches on brown paper, for these owe their very charm to the fact that they can be thrown away like brown paper. But Watts had the old dream of building in eternal brass; he liked designing public frescoes, public statues, public mosaics. There is a mosaic of his in the Whitechapel-road, a fresco in the House of Lords, a picture in St. Paul's Cathedral. One cannot move St. Paul's Cathedral as one moves the Peacock Room. One cannot throw away the Whitechapel-road as one throws away brown paper. I am not saying that this monumental solidity proves that the art is great. But I say that it proves that the artist is confident.
Another point very characteristic of the atmosphere to which Watts belonged is the quality of his moral indignation. He always had the temper of the meliorist, while he had at the same time much of the temper of the old Rousseauian optimist. He was really angry with the evils of the modern world. This still anger in Watts is closely connected with his simplicity, with his cheerfulness- nay, even with his optimism. Laughter has little or nothing to do with cheerfulness; some of the most cheerful people were the most unlaughing-Gladstone, for instance, and Watts. But it is, properly speaking, only the cheerful man, the optimist, who can be angry at all. It is the fashion nowadays for minor poets and minor philosophers to parade their enmity to the gods, to declare that their pessimism is a part of the immortal anger of Prometheus, the everlasting fury of protest against the baseness of the stars. But as a matter of fact they are not angry at all, as anyone knows who has heard their tired voices or seen them in a restaurant. The pessimist cannot be angry; for he has made up his mind to evil as the very stuff and colour of existence. It is only the optimist that can be really angry with the Serpent in Eden, for it is only he who is conscious of Eden. He alone can be furious, for he alone can be surprised.
So assuredly it was with Watts. In all his moral and religious allegories, especially when they touch upon the diabolic side of things, there is apparent this sudden and sacred impatience. Under the picture of "Mammon," under the picture of "The Minotaur," under the picture of anything evil in his gallery, seems printed in letters of painful fire "Shall this be endured for another moment?" And it was this innocent and startled wrath which was the note of the whole of Watts's age, the age of the Reform Bill. What modern pessimists call the sentimentalism of the early-Victorian time, what they call the optimism of the early-Victorian time, was, as a matter of fact, the living force by which it lived and triumphed. It was because the old political idealists had something of the child's ignorance and horror of evil that they swept away so many abuses. Compare with some picture by Watts, such as the "Mammon," which is full of a young and wide-eyed anger, some ultra-modern picture of an evil thing, some work of the new pessimistic atmosphere. Take, for instance, Degas's brilliant picture called "Absinthe," which depicts two wrecks of humanity soaking themselves in the maddening wormwood. The picture is steeped in devilish resignation. We feel as we look at it that these two human creatures have drunk absinthe from the beginning of the world, and will go on drinking it while the grass grows and until the stars fall into ruin. Here there is no astonishment, therefore there is no indignation. There is a thing which may truly be called religious resignation. But there is a deeper and stiller and more terrible thing, and its name is irreligious resignation. Because of Watts's intensely religious nature the painting of such a picture as this would be absolutely impossible to him. If he had conceived and painted "Absinthe" there would have been something fierce and insistent about the picture. Something fiendish and strained in the faces would have declared that the situation was unnatural. Something bitter and burning in the green colour of that shameful wine would have shown like the green eyes of a witch's cat. However dark and repulsive and merciless the picture might be, there would be something in it that suggested that it was dark against some white and blazing background, a background of the astonishment of the angels and the dreadful wonder of God.