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Imagine standing in the bustling Tate Britain, surrounded by a myriad of art pieces, each whispering their own unique story. Then, you end up standing in front of a painting that seems to contradict its title – ‘Hope’. This paradoxical masterpiece, crafted by George Frederic Watts, invites us to delve into the depths of hope, challenging our conventional understanding of this emotion. As we explore this popular artwork together, we’ll venture beyond the conventional, and perhaps find a more nuanced understanding of hope.
George Frederic Watts, a renowned British painter and sculptor, born in 1817 in London. Associated with the Symbolism movement, Watts, was quoted saying:
“I paint ideas, not things. My intention is less to paint works that are pleasing to the eye than to suggest great thoughts which will speak to the imagination and the heart and will arouse all that is noblest and best in man” – Watts
His painting “Hope,” created in 1886, is perhaps his most memorable work. The painting features a blindfolded woman, perched on a globe, clutching a lyre with all but one string broken. The choice of adding an instrument into the painting could have been an influence of his dad who was a musical instrument manufacturer.
The harmonious use of tone and color, coupled with the atmospheric effect of the translucent mist at the bottom of the globe, adds a layer of mystery and depth to the painting.
Watts’ representation of hope is unconventional, offering a unique perspective on this emotion. Despite the seemingly despairing scene, the woman continues to play the last string on her lyre, symbolizing the endurance of hope.
As a side note, Watts painted two versions of “Hope”. He donated the version you see above to the Tate in 1897. The other version, likely in a private collection, features a star above the woman’s head in the sky.
Watts’ Hope is a beautiful portrayal of the emotion, one that feels almost too real. In our fast-paced world, where we often find ourselves comparing our lives to the curated highlights of others, we all, at some point, experience a version of hope akin to the woman in Watts’ painting which is rarely publicly portrayed.
Consider the unemployed individual, fervently seeking a new job after an unexpected layoff. Or the daughter, watching her aging parent suffer, hoping for a peaceful end. Or perhaps, recall the throes of adolescent love, where the uncertainty of reciprocation leaves you strumming the last string of your heart’s lyre (ouch). These are the moments when hope feels the most real, the most tangible. It’s in these instances that we realize hope is not always a shooting star or a beacon of light in the dark, but sometimes, it’s the last string on our lyre that we choose to play.
What do the Stoics say about hope ?
The Stoics offer a different perspective on hope. They advocate for focusing on what is within our control and detaching from what is not. Hope, being an emotion tied to future outcomes, is inherently out of our control. Recognizing this can help us detach our emotions from the unpredictable nature of hope.
The Stoics also introduced the concept of ‘Amor Fati’ or ‘The love of Fate.’ This mindset encourages acceptance of whatever life throws at us, understanding that we can only control our reactions and actions. Just like the woman in Watts’ ‘Hope,’ we can choose to play our lyre, regardless of how many strings are left.
Life is your instrument, and you are its musician. There will be highs and lows, moments when you’ll feel like you’re down to your last string. But remember, you still have control over that string.The melody you create is entirely up to you. It can change over time, reflecting your unique journey. Whether it’s a quiet evening with a loved one or a thrilling adventure across a desert, the key is to stay attuned to your instrument. You alone know what you need to create your melody.
If you find yourself in London, I highly recommend a visit to the Tate Britain. Not only is the entry free, but you’ll also get the chance to see Watts’ ‘Hope’ in person. Trust me, the picture doesn’t do it justice.