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  • John William Godward
    Aug 9, 1861 - Dec 13, 1922
  • Beauty in a Marble Room - 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.
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Beauty in a Marble Room
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  • Beauty in a Marble Room

  • John William Godward
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  • 1894
    Oil on canvas

    British painter John William Godward, one of the foremost Victorian Neoclassicists, built an illustrious career upon creating images of idealized feminine beauty within a Graeco-Roman-inspired idiom. Though greatly influenced by his mentor, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Godward distinguished himself through his predilection for the solitary female figure. In his study of Victorian painters of classical subjects Christopher Wood described Godward's career;"...the best, and the most serious of Alma-Tadema's followers was John William Godward... All his life he devoted himself only to classical subjects, invariably involving girls in classical robes on marble terraces, but painted with a degree of technical mastery that almost rivals that of Alma-Tadema. Godward was also an admirer of Lord Leighton, and his figures do sometimes achieve a monumentality lacking in the work of most of Alma-Tadema's followers" (Christopher Wood, Olympian Dreamers, Victorian Classical Painters 1860-1914, London, 1983, p. 247).

    Beauty in a Marble Room was painted in 1894, in the wake of "Godward's artistic watershed" (Swanson, p. 47). While there is minimal anecdote in the majority of Godward's pictures, the narrative restraint in the present work is particularly compelling. Devoid of emotional charge – as well as studio props – the image is a stunning visual exercise in form and texture, as well as a striking study in contrasts. Here a young auburn-haired woman poses against a highly polished, veined marble backdrop. Swanson points out that Godward's "fascination with the torpid poses of his single figure compositions reflect[s] Joseph Albert Moore" (Swanson, p. 26). Indeed Moore's compositions of the late 1860s and early 1870s featuring a lone draped female figure in subtle contrapposto presented in a vertical format show a certain affinity with the present work. The hard, geometric surface of the three bands of marble (upper wall, lower wall and floor) is accentuated by the soft, organic quality of the woman's skin and hair. The crinkled nature of the diaphanous seafoam gown is contrasted by the graphic polka dot stola wrapped around her hips; the outline of her body is visible despite the layers of fabric, drawing attention to their translucency. The implied impermanence and vulnerability of her youthful form draped in delicate, sheer fabrics provide a striking foil to ideals of strength and timelessness suggested by the marble setting. Elizabeth Prettejohn remarks on Godward's work: "The ancient setting and accessories are an essential component of the picture's mood of distanced sensuality... The tensions between antique remoteness and "life like" rendering of textures, between cold marble and soft flesh, between abstract design and sensual appeal are essential to the picture's impact.' (Imagining Rome, British Artists and Rome in the Nineteenth Century, exhibition catalogue for Bristol City Art Gallery, 1996, p. 168).

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Other paintings by John William Godward:

Heart on Her Lips and Soul within Her Eyes
Heart on Her Lips and Soul within Her Eyes
Study of a Head in Drapery, Miss Ethel Warwick
Study of a Head in Drapery, Miss Ethel Warwick
A Dilettante
A Dilettante
At the Fountain
At the Fountain
John William GodwardJohn William Godward was a painter of classical genre scenes. His works embody the aesthetics of the circle of artists around Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912), often described as the ‘Greco-West Kensington School’, who saw the world of Ancient Greece as a Golden Age of poetic beauties and graceful languor. He 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. He was admired for his archaeologically exact rendering of the surfaces of marble and the flowing movement of classical costume. These girls reminded one critic of ‘true English roses’ as much as Hellenic goddesses; it is this gentle beauty which is Godward’s greatest charm. He first worked in his father’s prosperous insurance firm before training with William Hoff Wonter (1814-1881) to become an architect. He became a friend of Wontner’s son, William Clarke (1857-1930) who was also a painter. Vern Swanson has persuasively argued that Godward probably attended the St John’s Wood Art School at Elm Tree Road and the Clapham School of Art in the early 1880’s.

Godward exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy between 1887 and 1905 and at the Royal Society of British Artists, Suffolk Street, of which he became a member in 1889. 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 his 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. He 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, 30th 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.

Godward lived with his parents in Wimbledon until he achieved financial and critical success in 1889. He took a house at 34 St Leonard’s Terrace on the corner of Smith Street in Chelsea. He gave up his lease at Bolton Studios and rented a studio just around the corner. He filled his studio with marbles, ancient statues (mostly reproductions) and other antique objects, which he purchased from local shops and East End dealers, attempting to recreate a Graeco-Roman inspirational environment for his work. After a first trip to southern Italy in 1911, Godward moved to Rome where he remained until 1921. He took up residence in the Villa Stohl-Fern on the Monti Parioli near the Villa Borghese. The abundance of floral varieties and statuary in the villa’s elegant gardens appear in his work of this period. However, declining health and depression, meant Godward produced very few paintings in later life. Having returned to London in 1921, he committed suicide and was buried in Old Brompton Cemetery, Fulham.

The work of John William Godward is represented in the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery, Bournemouth and the Manchester City Art Gallery.