Sunday, January 18, 2009


Reverie by John William Godward
Getty Museum

Lost in her thoughts, a languid young woman lounges on a smooth, veined marble bench terminating in a herm figure, probably representing the type of the poet Homer with its heavy beard, thick hair and narrow ribbon around the head. The cloth wrapped around her hips, over her silky chiton, or tunic, is not an authentic element of ancient costume, but it bears a repeated palmette border based on a common ancient design. The fluffy, spotted animal fur is almost tactile but has no specific connection to antiquity. John William Godward probably included it for the delight of juxtaposing such varied textures and colors. He painted the silk, fur, and marble with great accuracy, approaching photographic realism, and arranged them to enliven the subtly colored composition.
Godward specialized in portraying women alone in settings suggesting antiquity, usually decorative, dark-haired beauties in diaphanous gowns created with ingenious contrasts of colors and flesh tones.
(© J. Paul Getty Trust)
Godward excelled in oil and watercolour. His work remained consistent throughout a remarkable career spanning almost forty years, over which time he created a vital stylistic niche for his oeuvre.
Godward is best known for his highly finished paintings of pretty girls attired in classical robes, indeed, he became known as the master ‘classical tunic gown’ painter. The diaphanous fabrics of their Grecian tunics highlight their pearly flesh surrounded by marble statuary and balustrades amidst abundant flowers.
Godward was admired for his archaeologically exact rendering of the surfaces of marble and the flowing movement of classical costume.
Godward’s paintings were also often accepted to the Birmingham Royal Society of Artists’ Autumn Exhibitions. The art dealer Thomas McLean was an important champion of Godward’s work which was often included in his annual exhibitions. The prints made of Godward’s work by McLean and later by Eugène Cremetti introduced a wider audience to the artist’s work and guaranteed his popularity.
Godward also exhibited internationally, making his début at the Paris Salon of 1899. In 1913 he was awarded the gold medal at the International Exhibition in Rome.
The first years of the twentieth century saw a revival of interest in classicism, as prosperity rose throughout the British Empire.
In fact, ‘the early Victorians believed that in ancient Rome they had found a parallel universe – a flawless mirror of their own immaculate world.” (Cited in Iain Gale, ‘The Empire Looks Back’, Country Life (30 May 1996) p.68.) This increased Godward’s popularity and success, with 1910 emerging as one of the best years for him as an artist.
(© 1996-2008, The Hawaiian Group)

A cool retreat
Image © 1996-2008, The Hawaiian Group

A lily pond
© 1996-2008, The Hawaiian Group

The Sweet Siesta of a Summer Day
Posted by Andréa Fernandes at

Godward was born in 1861 and lived in Wilton Grove, Wimbledon. He exhibited at the Royal Academy from 1887. When he moved to Italy with one of his models in 1912, his family broke off all contact with him and even cut his image from family pictures. Godward returned to England in 1919, died in 1922 and is buried in Brompton Cemetery, west London.
One of his best known paintings is Dolce far Niente (1904), which currently resides in the collection of Andrew Lloyd Webber. As in the case of several other paintings, Godward painted more than one version, in this case an earlier (and less well known) 1897 version.

Dolce far niente [Sweet Nothings]
Oil on canvas
Collection of Andrew Lloyd Webber
This image is courtesy of the Art Renewal Center

Godward was a Victorian Neo-classicist, and therefore a follower in theory of Frederic Leighton. However, he is more closely allied stylistically to Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, with whom he shared a penchant for the rendering of Classical architecture, in particular, static landscape features constructed from marble.
Given that Classical scholarship was more widespread among the potential audience for his paintings during his lifetime than in the present day, meticulous research of detail was important in order to attain a standing as an artist in this genre. Alma-Tadema was, as well as a painter, an archaeologist who attended historical sites and collected artefacts that were later used in his paintings: Godward, too, studied such details as architecture and dress, in order to ensure that his works bore the stamp of authenticity. In addition, Godward painstakingly and meticulously rendered those other important features in his paintings, animal skins (the paintings Noon Day Rest (1910) and A Cool Retreat (1910) contain superb examples of such rendition) and wild flowers (Nerissa (1906), and Summer Flowers (1903) are again excellent examples of this).
(From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)

Summer Flowers
Oil on canvas, 1903
Private collection
This image is courtesy of the Art Renewal Center

The serene beauty and astonishing technical execution of John William Godward's paintings contradict the fact that this important artist has received virtually no critical acclaim or art historical recognition. We know little about this artist's private life, which is not betrayed by his art. Melancholy, kindly, reclusive, handsome, talented and shy, J. W. Godward's life is still a mystery, a censored book, protected by himself and sealed by his family. Unlike most Olympian Classicists before him, he preferred anonymity and privacy.
Desperately idealistic, Godward was one of those artists, who at first glance, we think we fathom completely. Since he is often dismissed with the inadequate catch phrases: an Alma-Tadema clone, a "too late" Classicist, a "pedant of the brush", a "pot-boiler" or merely the painter of an insipid world of languorous women on marble benches, no serious study of his art has been undertaken. And because we are a society that honors "firsts" rather than "lasts" few art historians have examined the demise of Classical subject-painting, of which Godward is a chief exemplar. All of these judgements, in the light of historical distance, can be seen as unjust prejudices.
(Opening Chapter of Dr Vern Swanson's landmark biography of the artist: John William Godward: The Eclipse of Classicism at

Oil on canvas, 1893
Private collection
This image is courtesy of the Art Renewal Center

A Souvenir
Oil on canvas, 1920
Private collection
This image is courtesy of the Art Renewal Center

'Under the Blossom that Hangs on the Bough'
Oil on canvas, 1917
Private collection
This image is courtesy of the Art Renewal Center

Typically, his paintings are without any story, focussed on a single girl, large on the canvas, semi-draped or wearing translucent garments, giving a sensuality somewhat diminished by the careful, classical composition of the rest of the picture. Often the model is recognisable as his Italian girl, with black hair parted in the middle, very large eyes, thick eyebrows and a rounded face. The surroundings of his pictures - the marble terraces - always include a few props from classical antiquity - mosaic floors and sculpted roundels on walls are particular favorites, and also lion or leopard skins. Unlike Alma Tadema and Leighton, Godward was no scholar of antiquity, and his pictures are not obviously meant to be Roman on the one hand or Greek on the other. However, his painting of marble is almost as good as that of Alma Tadema. As well as the many pictures of single girls, and some with groups, Godward also did portraits of girls. A few pure landscapes, and early portraits of his family, are entirely different from his main body of work. His numerous pencil studies of the female figure show a concentration on the eyes and hair that is much toned down in finished paintings.
John William Godward is now recognised as one of the finest classical genre painters of his period and will always be appreciated for his high-quality paintings of Graeco-Roman women set in luxurious surroundings.

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