George Frederic Watts, who was interested in the Elgin Marbles from an early age, first worked in the studio of the sculptor William Behnes and then turned to portraits and later to history painting. He first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1837 and travelled in Italy during the mid-1840s. In 1850 he moved into Little Holland House as the semi-permanent guest of Thoby Prinsep and his wife, Sara. He decorated the dining room there, and also a town house in London, and completed a mural for the Great Hall at Lincoln's Inn. Watts was elected a full member of the Royal Academy in 1867 and began to enjoy increasing success; in 1881–82 there was a retrospective of his work at the Grosvenor Gallery, London, the first such exhibition devoted to the oeuvre of a living artist.
In this scene from classical mythology, Ariadne, daughter of King Minos, finds herself abandoned on the island of Naxos by the Athenian Theseus. She holds the red yarn that she had given him to guide him out of the Minotaur’s labyrinth. A satyr and a panther play in the right foreground.
Ariadne was a popular subject with Watts, who painted her no less than five times. The earliest canvas, one of three uprights, was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1863 (private collection, England). One horizontal version (Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London) is signed and dated 1875 while the other (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool) was first shown at the Metropolitan Museum in 1884. A second large upright (Harvard University Art Museums, Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, Mass.) is signed and dated 1890. The fifth is the present work, of which Mary Watts (1905), the painter's wife, wrote in her unpublished manuscript: "On this canvas it seems likely that Mr. Watts made his first sketch of this subject. It was certainly taken up again and completed by him during 1893–4." Watts frequently worked up a canvas, set it aside or even exhibited it, and then reworked it. Even if this is the case with the Museum’s Ariadne
, as Mary Watts suggested, the painting is essentially from the 1890s, bright in color, less nostalgic, and not so much influenced by the Elgin Marbles as the various earlier versions. It is in notably good state, with one major pentiment: the white drapery originally covered the right breast and shoulder of the figure. The frame is original and of the same design as that on Leighton’s Lucia
(The Met, 87.15.79
The English artist and critic Roger Fry, the Metropolitan Museum’s curator of paintings in 1906 and adviser until 1909, was already acting on the Museum’s behalf in 1905, when he recommended the purchase of this picture in a letter to the director, Purdon Clarke.
[2012; adapted from Baetjer 2009]