Alison Watt became fascinated with making and looking at paintings from a young age, and today she is a champion for the importance and unique nature of the medium. She developed her art in the 1980s when, focusing on the human figure, she worked on self-portraits and studies of life models in the studio. Towards the end of the 1990s she became interested in painting folds of fabrics and draperies of the kind often used as props by life models. The absence of the human figure marked an important shift in her subject matter. But rather than abandoning the figure as subject in favour of abstraction, Watt’s new paintings evoked the human body in its absence.
Watt’s painting Sabine (2000) shows her meticulous attention to detail. It is informed by the fabric depicted in portraits of women by the nineteenth-century French artist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Watt has described Ingres’s paintings as a long-time source of fascination. She regularly cites historical painters as inspiration, although her works share many qualities with her contemporary peers.
Phantom (2007) is one of several spectacular and absorbing large-scale canvases that were painted during Watt’s residency at the National Gallery in London. It is partly inspired by the painting Saint Francis in Meditation (1635–9) by Spanish artist Francisco de Zurbarán, which depicts a kneeling, open-mouthed figure whose face is almost completely obscured by shadow inside a hood. Watt’s fabric seems to suggest the ghostly absence and presence of a human form. The folds create a point of entry into an unseen negative space at the centre of the painting.
Fount (2011) is from a series of paintings that were partly inspired by the extraordinary self-portrait photographs of the American artist Francesca Woodman, who died in 1981 at the age of twenty-two. Watt’s fascination with Woodman’s work came from a broader investigation of the nature of self-portraiture. Made a few years after Phantom, this painting is less rooted in historical source material. It conveys an intimate, sensual and emotional response to a subject.