Orpheus head

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This is one of G F Watts’s rare and unique preparatory models for his painting Orpheus and Eurydice. The brilliant thing about Watts’s artistic practice was that it was fluid. His paintings would influence his sculpture and his sculpture would influence his paintings. As a result, he often tackled the same subject matter in different mediums, over several years. We know that Watts painted Orpheus and Eurydiceon at least three occasions. Compositionally they are all similar, and all capture a highly dramatic moment. In the painting, Orpheus is grasping at the pale figure of Eurydice as she swoons back towards the land of the dead. Her body hangs limp in Orpheus’s arms while he twists violently back to cling to her. The outline of her body is already dissolving into the dark background. In Watts Gallery Trust collection, we have three preparatory models of Orpheus that Watts created quickly, in plaster. Models of this type enabled Watts to visualise complex compositions and the expressions of his figures, all whilst following the rules of anatomy. They vary significantly in size and level of finish, from small-scale models used for dense multi-figure compositions to larger, more developed studies. The two full length studies of Orpheus were created incredibly quickly. You can still see the finger marks where Watts was modelling at great speed, with his focus on the twist of the torso, rather than the finer details. In addition to the full models, Watts also produced a head study of Orpheus. This provided him with an essential tool to study the physical expression of emotion on the human face. In this example, he captures the moment of anguish and distress as Orpheus realises that by looking back at his wife, he has sealed her fate to descend back to the underworld. This expression isn’t visible in any of the final paintings, as Orpheus turns away from the viewer. The preparatory model, therefore, provides us with a fuller story than that captured by the painting alone. George Frederic Watts, plaster study of the head of Orpheus, unknown date, plasterMaking and using plaster models enabled Watts to observe where light and shadow would fall across the form of each figure. In the painting we have on display in the exhibition, the colour is brighter, and the tonal variation is stronger than earlier versions, deepening the contrast between Orpheus’s living flesh and Eurydice’s ghostly body. Models of this type rarely survive and were usually destroyed, making the Watts Gallery Trust collection an important record that allows us to fully appreciate the work of Watts as a painter-sculptor. Whilst also demonstrating why the model of Orpheus is the perfect poster boy!

About the author:
Founded in 1904 as the only gallery in the UK devoted to a single artist, Watts Gallery – Artists' Village offers a unique insight into the life and work of 'England's Michelangelo' G F Watts and his wife, the designer and artist Mary Watts. The Artists' Village carries on the Wattses' legacy of 'Art for All' with its historic and contemporary galleries, working Artist in Residence and conservation studios and an extensive learning programme.


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