George Frederic Watts: The Irish Famine

The painting shows a contemporary subject, a young Irish family evicted from their home during the 1840’s. The Irish Famine occurred when the potato crop failed several years in succession. This caused mass starvation, killing thousands of people. The couple huddles together for comfort amidst a desolate, barren landscape. The father looks out defiantly, fists clenched, showing his anger, while the figure to the right expresses despair. Watts only visited Ireland after the picture was painted, so used models for this painting. A radical painting for its time it belongs to a group of four Social Realist paintings, depicting his concern with increasing poverty, stimulated by reading newspaper and magazine reports at the time.


George Frederic always spelled his first name with a 'k' and I wonder why the rest of us don't. Probably he was named after Handel since both were born on February 23rd, though a few years apart. Watts's father was a piano maker — not a rich man's trade — and they lived in the poorer parts of St Marylebone in London where he was born in 1817.The boy set off on a long life in art when he was sent, aged ten, to work in the Soho studio of the sculptor, William Behnes. By sixteen he'd painted an accomplished portrait of his father. At eighteen he found the Royal Academy Schools had nothing to teach him. At twenty he exhibited there for the first time and around this time he also met Constantine Ionides, a Greek merchant, who became his first patron. At twenty-five he won first prize in a competition for works to adorn the Houses of Parliament, then newly re-built to replace the old Palace of Westminster which had burned down. The prize money paid for a four-year trip to Italy, where he got his third big break — he met and went to live with Lord and Lady Holland in their villa in Careggi in Tuscany. (Lord Holland was Secretary to the British Embassy in Florence; this, of course, was before the Risorgimento.)...


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