A century ago today, John William Godward (1861–1922) died at the age of 61. In the first of these two articles showing a small selection of his paintings, I had reached 1895.
Godward was the most devoted painter of Dolce Far Niente, producing at least three different versions starting with this 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 recognised at the time as a hint that the woman is a courtesan (at best), supported here by her posture on a tiger-skin, and her diaphonous dress.
The Mirror (1899) is unusual for not showing the viewer the reflection in the mirror, only its back, bearing a vaguer image of a head.
His second Dolce Far Niente, or A Pompeian Fishpond, from 1904 is one of his more complex compositions, and probably his most famous painting. This again features peacock feathers in a fan in the foreground, and a tricky set of reflections in the water. The latter don’t appear entirely convincing, in the steps at least.
In his third Dolce Far Niente a couple of years later, Godward’s beautiful woman is stretched out on an animal skin on marble, with a colour-co-ordinated garden and distant Mediterranean waterscape beyond.
Godward is one of a few painters to have made a tortoise the subject of a painting, in The Quiet Pet (1906). One of his languidly beautiful women is seen in repose, offering a couple of cherries to her small pet tortoise, as a means of passing the time. I am unsure whether we should try to read anything more into the painting, but it begs the question as to whether the artist saw the tortoise or the woman as the quiet pet, and whether the offer of cherries should be interpreted any further.
He continued to paint single figures of women in thought, such as Violets, Sweet Violets from 1906.
In about 1910, he painted At the Garden Shrine, Pompeii, linking his classical theme to the ruins that had become popular with tourists.
The following year he painted In Realms of Fancy, with its echoes of Leighton’s Flaming June.
In 1912, he left Britain to live in Italy with one of his models. His family consequently broke all contact with him.
Tranquillity (1914) is exactly what it says.
A Souvenir (1920) was one of his last paintings made in Italy. It could perhaps have been a ‘problem painting’, encouraging the viewer to speculate on its underlying narrative, but Godward keeps it purely Aesthetic, in showing us the beads, presumably the souvenir of the title, and no other clues which could be used to read in any meaning.
Godward returned to London in 1921, becoming increasingly distressed about the advent of modernism, and of Picasso in particular. He died the following year, a suspected suicide. He is reported to have written a suicide note, containing the fragment “the world is not big enough for myself and a Picasso”.
Inevitably, through the twentieth century his paintings were forgotten, and became almost worthless. In more recent years they have enjoyed a revival, thanks largely to the interest of a few private collectors, and prices have risen to exceed $1 million for his better works.
Godward’s paintings undoubtedly have a sensory beauty, but I think demonstrate the dangers of dispensing with narrative, symbols, and readings: their beauty is transient, insufficient to hold prolonged attention. They are fleeting moments, static and generally both low in emotion and non-emotive. They look thoroughly nice, but that’s it: they’re very good eye-candy.