John William Godward was born into a wealthy family which thoroughly disapproved of his becoming an artist. Nevertheless, he became a painter, based in London, and exhibited at the Royal Academy from 1887. He fell in love with one of his models - an Italian girl - and when he 'ran off to Italy with her' it was the last straw, his figure being cut out from the family portraits. Godward's subjects are typically beautiful girls in classical robes on marble terraces. He was the most skilled from a number of artists who followed the highly popular style of Alma Tadema, and at his peak was nearly as famous. However, he had the misfortune to survive to a time when the Victorian artists, and Alma Tadema in particular, were held in low esteem. After living entirely in Rome from around 1912-1919, he returned to England, only to kill himself by putting his head in a gas oven in 1922.
Godward's paintings, as noted above, were very much in the 'girls on marble terraces' school after Alma Tadema, but he was also a great admirer of Leighton, and the high finish of his oil paintings, showing no trace of a brushstroke, is much closer to Leighton than to Alma Tadema. 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. However, other models also appear frequently in his pictures, including one looking much like Alma Tadema's wife or daughters.
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. Another speciality of Godward's was fruit and flowers, and his pictures often show these, especially poppies.
As well as the many pictures of single girls, and some with groups, Godward also did portraits of girls, though typically as 'types', with names such as Reverie, Reflections or A Classical Beauty. 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.
Godward's work is still mainly in private collections, though much is familiar through reproduction. Dolce Far Niente, showing his Italian model, exists in about seven versions. Expectation (1900) and On the Balcony (1898) are at Manchester, and The Signal (1899) is at the Getty Museum in California.
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Classical painters // Other artists