Art/ Collection/ Art Object


George Frederic Watts (British, London 1817–1904 London)
Oil on canvas
24 x 20 in. (61 x 50.8 cm)
Credit Line:
Rogers Fund, 1905
Accession Number:
Not on view
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 The fifth is the present work, of which Mary Watts (1905), the painter's wife, wrote in her unpublished manuscript: "On this canvas it seems likely that Mr.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]
Inscription: Signed and dated (lower right): G. F. Watts. / 1894
J. F. Haworth; [Dowdeswell & Dowdeswell, London, until 1905; sold to MMA]
London. New Gallery. "Summer Exhibition," Summer 1894, no. 114 (as "Ariadne").

Art Gallery of Toronto. "The Classical Contribution to Western Civilization," December 15, 1948–January 31, 1949, not in catalogue.

Lawrence. University of Kansas Museum of Art. "Dante Gabriel Rossetti and His Circle: Paintings, Drawings and Decorative Objects by the Pre-Raphaelites and Their Friends," November 4–December 15, 1958, unnumbered cat.

New Haven. Yale Center for British Art. "The Substance or the Shadow: Images of Victorian Womanhood," April 14–June 13, 1982, no. 104.

M. H. Spielmann. "Mr. George Frederick Watts, R.A." Magazine of Art 20 (January 1897), p. 208.

Roger Fry. Letter to Sir Purdon Clarke. December 11, 1905 [see Ref. Sutton 1972, vol. 1, pp. 244–45], notes that Dowdeswell is "giving the Watts a thin coat of mastic varnish" at his request.

Roger Fry. Letter to Sir Purdon Clarke. December 1, 1905, calls it "one of a few masterpieces on which his fame [will] ultimately rest" and adds that the artist "repeated the subject more than once and always successfully"; states that it is offered through Dowdeswell for £960 but can probably be had for £800.

Mary Watts. A Ms. Catalogue of the Works of GF Watts OM RA for Limnerslease. after 1905, vol. 1, p. 7, as exhibited in 1894 and owned by J. F. Haworth.

C[harles]. J[ohn]. Holmes. "Three New Pictures for the Metropolitan Museum of New York." Burlington Magazine 8 (February 1906), pp. 346–47, ill., observes that it is "smaller than the famous single seated figure [but] in some ways even more striking in design and colour, while the background is a splendid example of the romantic landscape in which Watts was a true pioneer"; notes that it is among the latest works, mentioning the weak modeling of the knee and the summary treatment of the right hand.

"Principal Accessions by Purchase: November–December 15." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 1 (January 1906), p. 27.

Roger Fry. 1906, lists it among acquisitions in his account of his activities as a purchasing agent for the Museum in 1905.

P[ercy]. M[oore]. Turner. "Pictures of the English School in New York." Burlington Magazine 22 (February 1913), p. 275.

Martin Birnbaum. Letter to Grenville L. Winthrop. June 2, 1939 [see Ref. Bryant 2003, p. 439], while recommending the "noble Ariadne" that Winthrop bought, points out that the Metropolitan Museum "owns a small second rate sketch".

Denys Sutton, ed. Letters of Roger Fry. New York, 1972, vol. 1, pp. 25–26, 245 n. 5 to letter no. 164, publishes Fry's December 1, 1905 letter to Clarke proposing its purchase, and notes that the purchase was favorably received in an editorial in the April 25, 1906 Evening Post.

Hilarie Faberman in The Substance or the Shadow: Images of Victorian Womanhood. Exh. cat., Yale Center for British Art, Yale University. New Haven, 1982, p. 102, no. 104, pl. 51, states that it was begun in the 1860s but not completed until 1894, and is "typical of Watts' practice of painting upon a single picture, or upon variations and replicas of a single design, through successive decades".

John Pope-Hennessy. "Roger Fry and The Metropolitan Museum of Art." Oxford, China, and Italy: Writings in Honour of Sir Harold Acton on his Eightieth Birthday. Ed. Edward Chaney and Neil Ritchie. London, 1984, p. 235.

Barbara Bryant in A Private Passion: 19th-Century Paintings and Drawings from the Grenville L. Winthrop Collection, Harvard University. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 2003, p. 439, fig. 195, calls this smaller version "perhaps a recollection," while noting that it has also been referred to as a sketch.

Katharine Baetjer. British Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1575–1875. New York, 2009, pp. 273–74, no. 131, ill. (color).

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