George Frederic Watts, O.M., R.A. (1817-1904)
George Frederic Watts, O.M., R.A. (1817-1904)
George Frederic Watts, O.M., R.A. (1817-1904)
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George Frederic Watts, O.M., R.A. (1817-1904)

A Study with the Peacock's Feathers

George Frederic Watts, O.M., R.A. (1817-1904)
A Study with the Peacock's Feathers
signed 'G.F. Watts' (lower left)
oil on panel
24 ½ x 20 ½ in. (62.2 x 52.1cm.)
Jean Louis Miéville (†); Christie's, London, 29 April 1899, lot 10, as A Fair Haired Girl (620 gns to Gribble).
Colonel Fairfax Rhodes (1845-1928), by 1906.
His sale; Sotheby's, London, 11 July 1934, lot 129, as The Amber Necklace.
with Agnew's, London, 1954, as The Amber Necklace.
Anonymous sale; Sotheby's, New York, 25 January 1980, lot 338, as The Peacock Fan.
with The Fine Art Society, London, January 1981, no. 9025, where purchased for the present collection.
F. G. Stephens, ‘Fine Arts: The Winter Exhibition’, Athenaeum, 4 November 1865, p. 618.
Art Journal, 1865, p. 369.
M. H. Spielmann, 'The works of Mr George F. Watts R.A., with a complete catalogue of his Pictures', Pall Mall Gazette, Extra Number, 1886.
M. Watts, Catalogue of the Works of G.F. Watts compiled by his Widow, manuscript, vol. I, p. 115.
V. Franklin Gould, G. F. Watts. The Last Great Victorian, New Haven and London, 2004, pp. 64 & 81, fig. 69.
A. Staley, The New Painting of the 1860s, New Haven and London, 2011, pp. 277-9, fig. 252.
London, French Gallery, Thirteenth Annual Winter Exhibition of Pictures, 1865, no. 108.
London, Royal Academy, Loan Exhibition, 1906, no. 118 as The Amber Necklace (lent by Colonel Fairfax Rhodes).
Kofu, Yamanashi Prefectural Museum of Art; Osaka, Daimaru Museum; Yamaguchi, The Yamaguchi Prefectural Museum of Art; Kurume, Ishibashi Museum of Art; and Tokyo, Isetan Museum of Art, Victorian Dreamers: Masterpieces of Neo-Classical and Aesthetic Movements in Britain, 8 April – 17 October 1989, no. 1, as The Peacock Fan.
Nottingham, Djanogly Art Gallery, Heaven on Earth: The Religion of Beauty in Late Victorian Art, 7 October - 27 November 1994, no. 74, as Nude with Peacock Feathers.
London, Tate Britain; Munich, Hause der Kunst; and Amsterdam, Van Gogh Museum, The Age of Rossetti, Burne-Jones and Watts, Symbolism in Britain: 1860-1910, 16 October 1997 – 30 August 1998, no. 8.
London, Tate Britain; Munich, Hause der Kunst; New York, Brooklyn Museum of Art; Kobe, Kobe City Museum; and Tokyo, Geidai Museum, Exposed: The Victorian Nude, 1 November 2001 - August 2003, no. 63.
Tokyo, Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum, Art for Art's Sake: The Aesthetic Movement 1860 -1900, 30 January - 6 May 2014, no. 6.
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Sarah Reynolds
Sarah Reynolds

Lot Essay

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.

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