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John William Godward's art is the punctuation mark of the so-called Victorian High Renaissance. His Greco-Roman compositions reached maturity in the mid-1890s, more or less concurrently with the deaths of two of the movement's leading figureheads, Frederic, Lord Leighton and Albert Joseph Moore. To be sure, Godward's more famous Victorian High Renaissance contemporary, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, was still active in the 1890s, and would be through the first decade of the twentieth century.
But Godward outlived them all, and continued to create his placid and wistful Mediterranean figure paintings through the tumultuous years of World War I and into the early 1920s. As the last of his kind, and working in the face of the modern art movements that were overrunning Europe in the new century, Godward was an even greater anachronism than his mentors, and today, despite his prolific output over three decades, remains the High Renaissance artist most shrouded in mystery.
In 1997, art historian, museum director, and Alma-Tadema biographer Vern Grosvenor Swanson published the first study of Godward's life and work, John William Godward: The Eclipse of Classicism, after twenty years of research. In his introductory remarks (p. 13), Swanson noted that, despite the "serene beauty and astonishing technical execution" of his paintings, Godward received little in the way of critical acclaim during his lifetime, and nothing in the way of art-historical evaluation since his death.
Godward's life has remained shrouded in secrecy, jealously guarded by his own reclusive and private demeanor and his family's reticence. Swanson's research revealed much about the artist's life, and his annotated catalogue raisonné in the same volume has shed light on the remarkable consistency of Godward's paintings.
John William Godward was born in the Battersea section of London to John and Sarah Godward, the first of five children. The Godwards were a prosperous but conservative middle-class family, and when their eldest son showed aptitude in drawing at an early age, they grudgingly permitted him to study architecture?in their eyes, an honorable artistic profession?with William Huff Wontner in the evenings, but only as long as he kept his clerking job at his father's insurance company during the day. When Godward's interest evolved toward the fine arts, the family refused to finance his formal art training at an expensive and prestigious school in Paris or London. Thus, Godward's name is notably absent from the roles of all the major art schools, so it is surmised that he received whatever formal training he had at a smaller, more parochial London art school, perhaps the Clapham School of Art, which was near the Godwards' home, or Heatherley's School of Art in Chelsea.
Wherever he may have studied, Godward made his public debut in 1887 at the Royal Academy of Art's Summer Exhibition with his painting, A Yellow Turban (unlocated). The same year saw Godward's first documented Greco-Roman composition, and Poppaea (unlocated), which was shown at the Suffolk Street galleries of the Royal Society of British Artists. With Poppaea, Godward had found his niche, and at a remarkably early point in his budding career.
It is unclear how or why John William Godward adapted Greco-Roman subject matter virtually immediately after making his formal debut. It is possible that Godward was encouraged to follow in the footsteps of the Aesthetic painter Albert Joseph Moore by the president of the Royal Society of British Artists, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, to whom he may have been introduced by the Pettigrew sisters, three of the leading female models of London in their day. The Pettigrews posed for Sir John Everett Millais, John Singer Sargent, Edward Poynter, and Whistler, and Godward painted portraits of all three sisters between 1887 and 1888, and used them as models for his more elaborate undertakings. Or, Godward merely may have been responding to the prevailing taste for Greco-Roman paintings among affluent middle-class picture buyers. Whatever the case, by 1888, Godward's artistic die had been cast, and he embarked on a successful career of creating beautiful genre scenes and figure paintings from the antique.
Godward reached full-blown maturity in 1893 with four paintings exhibited at the Royal Academy, one of which, At the Fountain (unlocated; a print after the painting illus. in Swanson, op. cit., p. 187), was subsequently reproduced in a photoengraving, allowing for a more mass distribution of the image. (Engravings were critical to establishing Godward's reputation to a wider middle-class audience.)
The pressures of commissions and patronage demanded a larger studio, and in December 1894, Godward moved to Fulham Road in Kensington and built a garden studio, which he outfitted with various Greco-Roman paraphernalia meant to inspire?rather than recreate?visions of these ancient Mediterranean civilizations. Godward's paintings remained in great demand through the turn of the century, and although art critics were far from unanimous in their praise of his work, the late Victorian public embraced Godward's ancient anecdotal recreations wholeheartedly. His reputation even took root on the Continent: in 1899, Godward made his debut at the Paris Salon with Dormeuse (unlocated).
But, with the death of Queen Victoria in 1901, and the rise of modernist movements in England and Europe, the prevailing winds of artistic taste were shifting dramatically, and at the expense of the Victorian High Renaissance's popularity. Around this time, Godward may have considered fleeing to a healthier artistic climate, and in 1905, he made his first trip to Italy?a surprising delay, considering his thorough immersion in Mediterranean subjects.
While little is known about this first trip, Italy must have offered an undeniable lure to the artist, for in 1910, Godward traveled to Rome to secure a home and studio. By June 1912, ironically the year of Alma-Tadema's death, he had moved to Rome and established a home and studio at the Villa Strohl-Fern, near the Villa Borghese. In Italy, a modest enclave of lesser classical artists still thrived, catering to a conservative audience in the face of modernism's escalating inroads. While it is not known if Godward associated with them, the artist continued to paint his richly detailed compositions in the grand manner through the war years and up to 1921, when he returned to London because of failing health.
Godward died in December 1922, a victim of suicide by asphyxiation in his studio on Fulham Road, with, according to newspaper accounts of his death, a blank canvas propped up on the easel before him.
It should come as no surprise that Godward's paintings have been compared to those of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema?indeed, critics in his day often dismissed Godward's efforts as slavish imitations. Most critics readily acknowledged Godward's technical veracity, but complained that his characters were vacuous and without soul. While it is true that Godward's paintings bear outward resemblance to Alma-Tadema's Greco-Roman opuses, they do not attempt to recreate the classical scene with the same archaeological accuracy found in Alma-Tadema's work, and rarely weave the same richly appointed stories adapted from Greco-Roman history or mythology. Instead, Godward's females often remain introspective, pensive, or lost in their own reveries. They are almost always depicted alone, but in the rare instances when they are accompanied by another figure? most often, a courting male? there is little interaction between them. Godward's Mediterranean beauties lounge in poppy-filled gardens, on marble exedra, or in Spartan interiors lined with variegated marbles or boldly patterned mosaics. Color is imparted to a Godward painting by flowers (in a garden setting), the occasional animal-skinned throw, and most prevalently, gaily colored tunics, skirts, stolae, and peploses worn by his women. Godward loved the varying textures and qualities of cloth, and throughout his career painstakingly imbued the diaphanous clothing of his figures with myriad folds and flounces.
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