Friday, November 28, 2008

The Victorian Painting that Inspired Barack Obama

This is Hope by the Victorian artist George Frederic Watts (DNB entry here, Wiki entry here), an oil on canvas painted in 1885. It has been called the most influential, striking, memorable, and strange of all Watts’s works.

One copy (Watts painted several) was presented to the nation by the artist in 1897. It can be seen in Room 15 of Tate Britain, where it hangs next to other works depicting "Victorian Spectacle." Another copy is on display now through April as part of "GF Watts: Victorian Visionary" at the Guildhall Art Gallery in London. (A related exhibition, "GF Watts: Parables in Paint," opens at St Paul's Cathedral in London next week.)

"The figure of Hope is traditionally identified by an anchor," says the caption on the wall next to the Tate's version. "In this picture she is blindfolded, seated on a globe, and playing a lyre of which all the strings are broken except one. Watts wanted to find a more original approach to symbolism and allegory. But Hope’s attempts to make music here appear futile and several critics argued that the work might have been more appropriately titled Despair. Watts explained that ‘Hope need not mean expectancy. It suggests here rather the music which can come from the remaining chord.'"

Twenty years ago this painting was the subject of a now famous sermon delivered by the Reverend Jeremiah Wright at Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ. In the audience: a 27-year-old community organizer named Barack Obama.

"The painting's title is Hope," Wright told his congregation. "It shows a woman sitting on top of the world, playing a harp. What more enviable position could one ever hope to achieve than being on top of the world with everyone dancing to your music? As you look closer, the illusion of power gives way to the reality of pain. The world on which this woman sits, our world, is torn by war, destroyed by hate, decimated by despair, and devastated by distrust. The world on which she sits seems on the brink of destruction. . . . [yet despite all this] she had the audacity to make music and praise God . . . the audacity to hope." (Here's a link to one version of the complete sermon.)

That last phrase struck the young Obama and he adapted it both for the title of his speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004 and for the title of his second book in 2006.

Obama was not alone in being inspired by the imagery of this painting; Nelson Mandela reportedly kept a reproduction of it on the wall of his Robben Island prison cell.


"Where There's Life, There's . . ." Paul Barlow on George Frederic Watts, from Tate Etc (August 2004)


Jenna Dawlish said...

This is a very interesting painting, I'd not seen before. I must admit, I'm not great at interpreting art - I tend to like nice looking pictures, rather than ones that make you feel something, but maybe I'll get there one day!


Well I suppose it's suited him to say that. To me this is a painting of despair. I can't see hope in it at all

john hopper said...

Oh dear, this piece of artwork inspired Obama?

Let's hope it's not a case of the blind leading the blind!

ArtSparker said...

(Not religous) but it looks like a painting of the Crucifixion to me - just rearanged.

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