OIL PAINTING: A Study with the Peacock's Feathers, 1862
With its rich colouring and luxuriant setting, Watts's Study pays homage to Venetian nudes of the Renaissance, but its lack of subject, strong design and decorative elements place it firmly among cutting-edge aesthetic pictures of the 1860s by Rossetti, Albert Moore and others. The inclusion of peacock feathers may be a direct allusion to the studies of Nanna Ris made by Leighton, a younger artist whom Watts knew and admired. The somewhat ambiguous Whistlerian title indicates that it is presented as a product of the studio, a study of a model. Formally, it can be related to Watts's Wife of Plutus. Watts sent his Study to the French Gallery for exhibition, a venue which suited its experimental aesthetic character, and it was the subject of extensive critical praise by F.G. Stephens in the Athenaeum: 'the tones are most subtly pronounced, and the artist's skills triumphantly manifested in the exquisite colour of the work. We rarely see such true Art as this, still more rarely does it present itself so wealthy in beauty and completeness'(4 Nov. 1865). Venetian painting was greatly admired in the 1860s by a number of prominent critics, most notably Ruskin, for its sensitive integration of form and colour. But precisely how realistically flesh should be treated was an area of some moral debate at this time. Watts's model is treated sensuously and naturalistically, her flesh warm and real, making it a daring contribution to this discussion. Her flushed cheeks may have caused further unease.