Thursday, November 13, 2008

Hope and the new President

George Frederic Watts
Hope 1886
Oil on canvas
support: 1422 x 1118 mm frame: 1740 x 1425 x 105 mm
Tate Britain, London

George Frederick Watts (1817-1904)
Hope 1885
Oil on canvas
Private collection

Alastair Sooke in The Telegraph narrates a fascinating story about one of President Barack Obama's favourite painting: Hope by George Frederic Watts.

In 1990, Obama was captivated by a sermon delivered by the Rev Jeremiah Wright, his controversial former pastor. The focus of the sermon was Hope, Watts's melancholy painting.

But the painting's message of faith in the face of adversity fascinated Wright.

"The harpist is sitting there in rags," he preached. "Her clothes are tattered as though she had been a victim of Hiroshima… [yet] the woman had the audacity to hope."

The phrase stuck irrevocably in Obama's mind. He adapted it as the title of his rousing address to the Democratic Convention in 2004. In 2006, he used it again, as the title of his second book.

Hope (1886) is undoubtedly the most memorable and strange of all George Frederic Watts’s paintings.

It is not a traditionally Christian image of the theological virtue. Indeed Watts deliberately set out to create a new image.

A figure blindfolded, sitting on the globe, on the world, is desperately trying to make music on an instrument, a lyre, of which only one string is left.

Many of Watts` contemporaries thought the painting would be more appropriately titled Despair

He made about six copies of the same work. When first exhibiited it struck a chord and was immensely popular. The version in The Tate is the version whichwas exhibited by Watts and then gifted by Watts to the nation. All are in different styles.

During his lifetime, Watts received letters testifying to its emotional impact on those who saw it.

Watts received a letter from a poor man who had been “down on his luck”, but who told the artist he was cheered and encouraged by a reproduction of the painting, which brought him back from the brink of despair.

It was said that a prostitute, who felt that “life had become unbearable”, saw a photograph of Hope in a shop window. She bought it with “her few saved coppers” and gazed at it until “the message sank into her soul, and she fought her way back to a life of purity and honour”.

The painting seems to make human desolation appear beautiful, noble and morally redeemable.

Watts explained that ‘Hope need not mean expectancy. It suggests here rather the music which can come from the remaining chord’

One Victorian critic (Hare) wrote: "At the first glance it is rather strange that such a picture should bear such a title, but the imagery is perfectly true. The heavens are illuminated by a solitary star, and Hope bends her ear to catch the music from the last remaining string of her almost shattered lyre."

As well as the President-elect, the painting has also been admired and cherished by Nelson Mandela kept a reproduction on his wall while he was imprisoned on Robben Island.

After the Six Day War, the Egyptian government issued copies of it to its troops, humiliatingly defeated by the Israelis in 1967.