In the first of these two articles chilling out and looking at paintings of dolce far niente, the enjoyment of being idle, or blissful laziness, I had reached peak Aestheticism in 1890. It still had further to go in the paintings of John William Godward, John Singer Sargent and others.
The Playtime (1891) referred to in John William Godward’s painting above is that of a kitten with a peacock feather, both frequently appearing in Aestheticist paintings. Much of the rest of the painting is then decoration and embellishment around that central scene, begging the question as to the role of the man and second woman. One of the few details shown on the building is an interesting echo, in the painted image of a peacock at the upper left.
Godward’s Mischief and Repose from 1895 is a little more complex, with two diaphanously clad women idling away their time, one playing little tricks with the hair of the other. His marble has become more interesting here, and in parts threatens to overwhelm the figures.
Frederic, Lord Leighton’s Flaming June from about 1895 is another epitome of the theme, although few English Junes reach this level of warmth, and I suspect he may be referring to lands further south.
Laurits Andersen Ring isn’t known for his paintings of idleness, but In the Month of June from 1899 shows his wife blowing dandelion clocks in a moment of dolce far niente, as his social realism fell away for a moment.
Godward was the most devoted painter of Dolce Far Niente, with at least three different versions starting in 1897. This returns to a classical Roman setting, and introduces a brilliant green parakeet, with its bright red bill. This type of play with parrot-like birds may have been established as a symbol that the woman is a courtesan (at best), supported by her posture on a tiger-skin, and her diaphanous dress.
Seven years later, in 1904, Godward painted this more complex version, also known as Sweet Idleness, or A Pompeian Fishpond. More modestly clad, his lone woman rests with her knees drawn up into a near-foetal sleeping position on another animal skin, with a peacock-feather fan in the foreground.
A couple of years after that, in 1906, Godward’s beautiful woman is stretched out on an animal skin on marble, a colour-co-ordinated garden and distant Mediterranean waterscape beyond.
For the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, he brought much-needed Tranquillity.
The other great exponent of dolce far niente was John Singer Sargent, most particularly in paintings he made of his friends towards the end of his career in portraiture, and after 1907 when he shut that studio’s doors.
Whether he sketched their repose in oils (above) or watercolour (below), Sargent was adept at capturing their siestas, here in 1905.
Then in 1907, freed from the ties of his commercial work, Sargent painted his canonical Dolce Far Niente. It merits a closer reading.
A group of six figures, three male and three female, dressed in a variety of Middle Eastern costumes, are seen idling time away beside an alpine stream. In the foreground, greatly foreshortened and cropped by the lower edge, one lies asleep, her thighs marking the bottom of the canvas. A woman and man in the left half of the painting are engaged together apparently with a chessboard between them. In the right half, two men play chess, with a woman spectator sat between them and deeper into the view.
Immediately behind the spread of figures the stream meanders in a lazy S from the middle of the left edge to the top of the right edge, scattered rocks visible on the distant bank. In the distance, on either side of the stream, the alpine meadow is rich yellow, gold, and light red with flowers, as it is in the immediate foreground.
The painting is lit by bright sunlight from the left and above, rendering folds of the white, loose robes worn by three of the figures brilliant in its rays, and illuminating the rest of the robes of the woman watching the game of chess. The surface of the stream is rippled at the left, closest to the viewer, and reflects the deep blue of a cloudless summer sky. The right and more distant half of the stream reflects the deeper brown of the far distance, beyond the top edge of the painting. Submerged rocks and vague forms are also visible under the water. An area of the foreground, in the mid-left, is in shadow cast by another distant and unseen object, presumably a tree.
All three male figures are thought to have been modelled by Nicola d’Inverno, the painter’s manservant, and the woman seen asleep appears to be Jane de Glehn, a friend. Sargent had purchased the costumes in the Middle East during his travels there, and they were transported in trunks to the site, believed to be the brook at Peuterey in the Val d’Aosta, most probably in the summer of 1907.
This painting was hung in the summer exhibition of the New English Art Club, London, in 1909, and was favourably received by the critics. It was sold within an hour of the opening of the press view, to Augustus Healy, founder of the Brooklyn Museum.
Again the idle repose of Sargent’s brilliant watercolour sketch of Simplon Pass. The Tease from 1911 shows moments of pure dolce far niente.
The First World War and the influenza pandemic afterwards brought much of that studied idleness to an end, at least in paintings. Sargent painted the remains of crashed aircraft in a field, and a long file of victims of gas attack. But there were still occasional artists who found moments to record.
In Elegant Repose from 1932, Jules-Alexis Muenier’s fashionably dressed young woman is very much dolce far niente. She wasn’t seven years later, though.
May this year bring you plenty of your own dolce far niente.