George Frederic Watts was born in the city of London on February 23, 1817, the same day as the famous composer George Frederick Handel, whom he has been named after. His father was a poor piano-maker, and his mother died when George was still young.
Due to his poor health and the death of his mother, young George was homeschooled by his father. His early education under his father was heavily influenced by a rather conservative interpretation of Christianity, which would repel Watts from conventional religion throughout his life. However, his studies consisted of classics such as the Iliad, which had a positive and continuous influence on him.
At 18 years old, Watts enrolled at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, where he first exhibited two years later. By that time, he would also start his portraiture career. His primary patronage came mainly from Alexander Constantine Ionides, a distinct art collector and future close friend.
Watts firstly arose to public attention with his drawing called Caractacus, which he entered for a competition in 1843, to design murals for the Houses of Parliament. Though Watts won the competition’s first prize, his visions were mildly accomplished. However, the award would fund an extensive visit to Italy from 1843 to 1847.
While in Italy, the artist began to create landscapes and was much inspired by the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo and Giotto’s Scrovegni Chapel. He also made acquaintances with Henry Fox, the British ambassador. Watts left Italy in 1847, and went to London, planning a brief visit, however, he would end up staying until his passing.
Now back to the United Kingdom, Watts was aiming to execute his plans of a monumental fresco, inspired by his experiences in Italy. However, he had no success in finding a building, and he could only make a 45 by 40-foot fresco inspired by Raphael’s The School of Athens. In consequence, most of Watts’ major artworks were conventional oil paintings.
In 1867, Watts was elected as a Royal Academician and was one of the original members of the newly established Order of Merit.