The appearance of this seminal Aesthetic work on the market is a major event. Familiar from its appearances at several key exhibitions, and reproduced in a great many books on nineteenth-century art, A Study with the Peacock’s Feathers has become one of the icons of Victorian painting. So familiar did images of a nude artist’s model become in the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries that it is important to recognise that this is one of the pictures that initiated an entire genre of painting. The whole classical history of western art was of course based upon the nude, yet as the distinguished historian of Victorian art Allen Staley has written, Watts’ painting 'has an intimacy and immediacy reflecting his employment of an actual model, rather than embodying an idealized conception of beauty. The picture conveys not only sensuous observation of the female body and flesh, but also engagement with a real person, although we do not know the identity of that person.'
The unidentified model provides the occasion for a “Study” of the nude simply for its own sake. In the words of Watts’ biographer, Veronica Franklin Gould, 'she faces the viewer and leans back against creamy silk, fur and velvet drapes whose restless folds highlight her pure flesh tones and relaxed pose; raising her other arm above and behind her head, peacock plumes curve down to her shoulder'. Those peacock feathers were in the early 1860s becoming associated with a new type of painting which uncompromisingly focused upon beauty of colour and texture. They appear in several works from this period, the early 1860s, by Watts’ great friend Frederic Leighton (fig. 2). Watts and Leighton – along with Rossetti and others – were especially associated in the 1860s with the revival of the nude in British painting, a challenging mode within this new Aesthetic trend. The sitter’s green and gold hairscarf hints at Orientalist models for the figure. She is in part a riposte to the Odalisques of Ingres as much as she is the British equivalent to Manet’s Olympia (fig. 1), exhibited like Watts’ picture in 1865.
One final element of the model’s restricted list of accessories invites a more biographical connection. As Gould observes, her necklace of amber beads is identical to that worn by Watts’ first wife, the actress Ellen Terry, in his great portrait of her made in the year of their marriage (fig. 3, 1864, Portrait of Dame Ellen Terry ('Choosing'), National Portrait Gallery, London). Watts’ exploration of the nude in art coincided with great sadness in his own life, for his marriage to the much younger Ellen lasted only a few months and seemed to put an end to any escape from his role as the lofty but lonely sage of the Victorian scene. Watts had attracted a kind of cult following through his deeply intellectual and nobly ethical art. For him now to turn to a worship of beauty for its own sake risked confusing his audience, or worse. When Watts exhibited the Peacock’s Feathers in 1865 he sent it to the relatively small winter exhibition of British art mounted annually by the dealer Ernest Gambart on Pall Mall. This effectively restricted its public exposure while allowing the critics and collectors a sight of it. That Watts showed alongside it a portrait of the Liberal statesman William Gladstone helped suggest that the master had not entirely abandoned austerity of purpose for sensuality.
The Watts scholar Barbara Bryant, in the catalogue to the Tate Gallery exhibition The Age of Rossetti, Burne-Jones and Watts: Symbolism in Britain 1860-1910, writes that A Study with the Peacock’s Feathers 'is emphatically art about art', and 'an exercise in the painting of the beautiful.' The painting echoes Titian, Ingres and Rossetti, among other sources, yet as we have noted, adds a startling modernity to this ancestry in so openly representing the nude without directly relying upon literary, mythical or orientalising framing devices. The only critic to feel able to discuss the work at length in print in 1865 was Frederic George Stephens, an original member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and critic for the Athenaeum. Stephens delicately addressed Watts’ challenge of presenting this naked body to the viewer, and invited his readers to see the work ultimately in almost abstract terms of exquisitely handled and blended paint. 'We rarely see such true Art' claimed Stephens; 'still more rarely does it present itself so wealthy in beauty and completeness.'
We are grateful to Nicholas Tromans for his assistance in preparing this catalogue entry.