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Not Elementary, My Dear Watson...

George Spencer Watson (1869-1934) - Self-portrait
Self portrait

Born March 8, 1869 in London, George Spencer Watson was an English Realist portrait and figure artist. Watson was a member of the prestigious Royal Institute of Oil Painters and the Royal Society of Portrait Painters, whose famous alumni include artists such as Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Henri Fantin-Latour, John Singer Sargent, James Whistler and Auguste Rodin. By the time his career was in full-swing the 20th century changed art in a way that punished Realist painters and Watson's talents were not appreciated as much as they could have been had he been born a mere fifty years earlier. Although obscure considering the company he was in, Watson had a uniquely modern eye for the portrait and especially the female nude that is definitely worth looking at.

In his Self-Portrait above, Watson portrays himself as an artist with uncanny self-awareness, studying himself with cautious scrutiny by the way he leans forward. Note how tightly rendered his head is, and how the brushstrokes become looser as our eye travels downward from his blue smock to the elliptical palette. A self-portrait is always an exercise in humility and discovery, and here Watson has definitely achieved both.

George Spencer Watson (1869-1934) - Marishka

A remarkably modern nude with a definite presence, Watson uses fabric to underline the vibrant personality of this attractive woman with a pose that maintains a Classical sensibility. The stylish hairstyle and earrings, along with a feminine confidence, are what add to the intriguing portrait and give it a contemporary flair. Watson paints the background in a warm brown tone that keeps our eye on the figure and to the red drapery she is sitting on. The floral pattern on the fabric underneath seems to enhance her feminine allure.

George Spencer Watson (1869-1934) - Hilda and Maggie, 1911
Hilda and Maggie, 1911

A portrait of Watson's wife Hilda with her faithful dog, this portrait has a warmth and character that needs no real explanation. What is interesting, however, is the wistful expression of the woman. Watson's palette is an interesting combination of vibrant warm and cool for her wardrobe, and despite the floral patterned background behind them and on the chair it doesn't detract from the subjects at all. Watson does place the background in slight shadow behind them so as to desaturate the colors. Again, the pose has a Classical feel to it, despite the morose mood, and the presence Watson has created is very British and very palpably human.

Lieutenant Colonel Oliver C S Watson, by George Spencer Watson
Lieutenant Colonel Oliver C. S. Watson, VC, DSO, 1917

This decorated officer from WWI may have been a close relative of Watson, possibly his brother. Presumably painted from a photograph, Watson creates a respectful tribute to an English war hero with a facial expression that conjures Van Dyke in its psychological attention to the eyes and mouth. Watson creates a tangible texture of the uniform and the warm tone of the leather belt across the jacket, yet the edges of the shoulder fade off as if to suggest the life cut short of this brave soldier. Watson's grey/blue background is gloomy yet without melodrama.

A Study from Life, 1928

Sophisticated yet sensual, Watson's study of a young English woman is insightful and modern. This time the red is a dark, draped background against a floral-patterned wall and the chair is a warm blue, covered with striped and blue fabrics. Her skintones oscillate between cool and warm and yet Watson creates a solid figure with sculptural mass. Despite her lack of jewelry it is her modern, short coif that helps define her confidence and sensuality.


Watson paints this young woman in loose brushwork that makes her skin glow, while emphasizing the vivid floral pattern behind her and on the blanket she is sitting on. The choice of fabrics and palette seems contradictory and yet Watson blends them together somehow with a young graceful model that exudes femininity. Sculptural and contemporary with a unique hairstyle that is both Classical and modern, Watson's nudes are respectful tributes to the timeless beauty of the female form.

Mary Spencer Watson by George Spencer Watson
Mary Spencer Watson, 1930

This is a portrait of Watson's daughter Mary, who became a sculptor in her own right. The choice of background is interesting in that it appears to be leather with seams, and Watson goes to great lengths to portray his daughter's tomboy personality and unrefined fashion sense. Her face however, is feminine and beautiful. Watson's brushwork is also veering towards the contemporary here, and he may have been becoming more partial to the changing artworld around him at that time.

Watson is a rare gem whose insightful eye is worthy of continued study. His realism neither dramatizes nor preaches, and in his eyes the female form is a natural manifestation of nature that both changes with the times yet is timeless itself, like art.


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