George Frederic Watts, Can These Bones Live?

Watts Gallery Collection, Compton, Guildford, Surrey

Date: 1897-98

The Belgian Symboilst painter Fernand Khnopff knew Watts’s work well and favourably reviewed this work. Even though the title is taken from a passage in the Bible, Watts work intended it to be a withering attack on his country. “The bones in the painting”, he said to a visitor to his studio, “refer to the state of the nation”. At the heart of this dark picture is a fallen oak tree that crushes a skeleton, and lying around are various symbols to emphasise the point, including an assassin’s knife, a champagne glass and horses hooves filled with dice. According to the original architect of the Watts Gallery Christopher Hatton Turnor, Watts “persistently wore a black band on his arm. After a time I asked him who he was in mourning for? – no-one – ‘I mourn for the stupidity of my country.’”


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