John William Godward. Part 3 – Italy and the sad end to life.

Dolce Far Niente by John William Godward (1906)

…………………John William Godward made his first visit to Italy in 1905, a year after his father died.  He travelled around visiting the islands of Ischia and Capri.  He also journeyed around the Gulf of Naples and visited Sorrento and the historical site of Pompeii, the latter being one of his favourite places, during which time he painted many oil studies.   Probably one of his best-known works of the time is a painting he completed in 1906 entitled Dolce far Niente (Beauty doing nothing).  Like most of his paintings there is no symbolic meaning or a connected narrative to it.  We are just left to study this ageless place, with its sumptuous luminous surfaces of veined marble.  We absorb the dark red coloured, classically-inspired fabrics which adorn the body of the beautiful woman, who reclines against the lush textures of a leopard skin. Her long dark hair cascades over the marble stonework.  She seems lost in thought and her eyes are languorously unfocused as if she is daydreaming.  She is the epitome of relaxation.  Look how the undulation of her breasts, waist, hips, and legs seems to be a mirror-image of the Phlegraean Islands in the Gulf of Naples which we see in the background.

Lycinna by John William Godward (1918)

After his short stay in Italy he returned home but returned for a much longer stay setting off for Rome around May or June of 1912 and he remained in the country for eleven years.  So why did he leave his native England?  Various theories abound.  It could be that he lost his desire to paint in England as his output around this time had fallen dramatically, and yet, London was where his art was selling.  Maybe he sought Roman inspiration.  It should also be remembered that the great Classicist painters like, Tadema-Alma, Edward Poynton, Bougureau and Jean-Léon Gerôme had all studied or worked in the Italian capital.  However, a more probable reason was his love for one of his models, an Italian girl, who had grown tired of living in England and decided to return home.  Once again, we need to understand Godward’s relationship with this girl.  It was not a case of mutual love.  Godward’s love for and devotion to the woman was, sadly for him, not reciprocated.  She put up with him and was happy to accept the fees for modelling but as far as she was concerned that was all it was.

Song Without Words by John William Godward (1919)

Godward had already disappointed his family by not following the footsteps of his father and brothers into the financial world.  He had chosen, in the minds of his parents, the dubious path and lowly status of a professional artist which was looked upon as a slight on the family values.  Now the family were informed by him that he was leaving the country and going to live in Italy with his Italian model.   Can you imagine how that was greeted by his mother and siblings, especially his brothers?  A family relation, Dr, Gilbert Milo-Turner recounts:

“…He left in a rush, running off with his Italian model to Italy.  His mother never forgave him for this breech of conduct. He shocked the family by living with his model…”

Milo-Turner continued that the family already felt betrayed by him for becoming an artist, “and now this!”

An Offering to Venus by John William Godward (1912)

On arriving in Rome, Godward moved into a studio at the Villa Strohl-Fern hoping to find inspiration in the Italian capital. The Strohl-Fern had been converted into a group of artist’s studios and was close to the beautiful gardens of the Villa Borghese and the recently completed Museo Nazionale Arte Moderna.  One of the first works Godward completed whilst living in Rome was his 1912 oil painting, An Offering to Venus depicting a thoughtful priestess.   It is his homage to the Roman goddess of love.   Her voluptuous figure is barely hidden by the purple diaphanous coa vestis tunic and deep crimson stola.  Coa vestis is an ancient type of fabric named after its point of origin, the Greek island Kos and was made using the wild silk of Pachypasa otus, a Mediterranean moth.  The priestess is seen offering a vase of pink and red roses to a bronze statue of the Venus of Arles.  It is more than likely that the model Godward used for this work was the lady who travelled to Italy with him.

Girl In A Peach Dress by John William Godward

So, who was this woman who so beguiled the quietly-spoken introverted painter and turned him into a besotted suitor?  What was her name?  A clue to her identity comes from the Scottish painter and illustrator, Sir William Russell Flint who recalls meeting Godward in Rome:

“…I had an introduction from Lee Hankey to J. W. Godward in Rome … Godward was exceedingly kind and helpful. He knew all the ropes and didn’t mind showing us how to use them. He worked steadily at his Greek maidens in Liberty silks from a Roman model whose name in English meant “Sweetest Castaway.” This heavy-jowled beauty was a star among the models (I found them a sorry lot after Londoners), but she aimed at being taken for something better. One day at Godward’s for tea, Dolcissima, after taking a maddening time to complete her re-attirement, as last proceeded to make her dignified departure. My wife, with kind intention, called her notice to a long white thread sticking to her coat. It proved a mistake to do so because we were afterwards told that the thread had been placed there deliberately as the emblem of what Dolch thought a superior class — the dress-makers…”

Another entry in Flint’s diary hints at the tragedy which later befell Godward.  He wrote:

“…Good, kind Godward, what a difference he made to our Roman sojourn! Let these grateful words mask a tragedy…”

Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder by John William Godward (1912)

Godward’s completed his large canvas, measuring 131 x 80cms (51 x 32 inches), Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder in 1912 and this was looked upon as the start of his Roman Period. It is a beautiful painting which oozes with charm, beauty and innocent opulence which were familiar characteristics in Godward’s works.  The lady looks thoughtful and sad and by the title we are to presume that her lover has left her and maybe the ship in the background alludes to the couple’s parting.  She is dressed in a plum-coloured tunic.   Lying next to her on the marble seat is her fan.  In the foreground, Godward has included a floral still-life of irises. The flower symbolises faith, wisdom, and cherished friendship.

The Tryst by John William Godward (1912)

Another painting which incorporates a “Roman beauty” and a floral depiction was also painted in 1912 with the title The Tryst.  It is thought that, as it is the same size as Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder it could have been meant as a pendant piece with that work.  This painting depicts a young Roman woman dressed in a pale-yellow diaphanous tunic who is seated on a marble terrace waiting for her lover. She looks directly towards us, searching for a sign of her beloved.  The Mediterranean sun blazes down on her and she has raised her hand to shade her eyes from the dazzling brightness.   In the foreground, we see the still-life element of the painting in the form of poppies of various colours and varieties and a colourful oleander bush which acts as a great contrast to the clear blue sky.  There is probably little symbolism in their inclusion as Godward’s classical paintings centred on decorative beauty rather than tales of mythology and any narrative, which one gained from viewing the work, was probably in the observer’s mind rather than that of the artist.  Godward’s works were all about pleasure.  Beautifully adorned women in charming sunny settings overlooking the blue Mediterranean Sea, pristine marble surrounded by colourful flowers.  They all made for the perfect idyll

Still Life of Peach with Twig by John William Godward (c.1912)

Once in Italy Godward became more interested in still-life. Fresh fruit was easily accessible in market places and they appeared more and more in his paintings.  Around 1912 he completed the still life work entitled Still Life of Peach with Twig.

Seascape with Rock, Capri by John William Godward (c.1913)

Although most of Godward’s works featured single figure depictions of women in classical settings, he did complete some pure landscapes and seascapes.  An example of this from around about 1913 was his seascape, Seascape with Rock, Capri.

Nude on the Beach by John William Godward (1922)

Godward painted many nudes during his lifetime and one of his last paintings was one entitled Nude on the Beach which he completed in 1922, the year of his death.

Godward returned to England around  the early part of 1921.  He was suffering physically with insomnia and chronic dyspepsia and mentally with bouts of severe depression.  His classicism genre of painting had fallen out of favour with the public, and it said that he believed there wasn’t enough room for him and Picasso, whose art genre had become so popular.  He was all alone having been introverted all his life.  Whatever was depressing him and how he was feeling was never talked about as he had no close friends to unburden himself.  He saw no reason with continuing with life and on Wednesday December 13th, 1922 he ended his own life by gassing himself.

The Fulham Gazette coldly reported the death:


With his head lying in a packing case and his mouth touching the turned-on jets of a gas-ring, Mr. John William Godward, an artist in oils, aged 62, was found dead on Wednesday night in his studio at Fulham. The studio is at the rear of a house 410 Fulham Road, Fulham, where his brother and sister-in-law live.  The brother of deceased, Charles Arthur Godward, a fire insurance official, living at the same address, said that his brother had been a very reserved man and lived entirely alone. On the Wednesday morning Witness [C.A. Godward] had seen him in the Garden when he seemed all right. As far as he knew deceased had not financial worries or troubles of any kind. On the previous Sunday deceased had asked him to send a telegram to his mother stating that he would not be able to go and see her as he was not feeling well.

The death of Godward was greeted by his mother and siblings not so much with outright heartbreak but with a sense of indignation which was directed at the disgrace the eldest son’s suicide had brought upon the family, so much so that his elderly mother eradicated him from all the family records, destroying any photographs she had of him. even to the point where she cropped him out of photographs in order to remove the offending sections depicting her son, John William Godward.

Sadly, by the medium of his paintings, Godward created an imaginary world to take the place of the real world he lived in and which he disliked so much.  In a way, his art was a form of escapism.  His lonely and tedious world, full of anxiety, had been, through his art, replaced with an excessively joyous one, which came in the form of his idealised paintings of a tranquil bygone era endowed with perfect peaceful beauty.  Maybe on December 22nd, 1922 Godward finally entered his own idyll, finally free from depression, loneliness, and unhappiness.

John William Godward’s grave at Old Brompton Cemetery

Godward was buried in London’s Old Brompton Cemetery which was just a hundred yards from his studio.  He had bought himself a burial plot there when his father died in 1904.  At the time of his death he was interred at this family plot along with his father and one of his sister’s, Nin’s, sons.  Godward’s mother, Sarah Eborall, lived until 1935.

Most of the information for this and my two previous blogs about John William Godward came from a 1998 book by Vern Grosvenor Swanson entitled J.W.Godward: the Eclipse of Classicism.

The Martyrdom of Saint Erasmus by Nicolas Poussin

The Martyrdom of Saint Erasmus by Nicolas Poussin (1629)

Today My Daily Art Display looks again at an artist who many believe was the greatest French painter and the leader and dominant inspiration of the classical tradition in French painting.  His name is Nicolas Poussin. 

 Poussin was born of a noble but impoverished peasant family in Les Andelys, small town in Normandy in 1594.  In his youth he studied Latin, and this was to have great influence in his future works of art.  In his late teenage years he met an artist, Quentin Vartin, who had come to Les Andelys to carry out a church commission.  It was then that Poussin showed the visiting artist some of his artistic work who then agreed to give the youngster some artistic tuition.  In 1612 Poussin left Les Andelys and went to Paris and studied art at the studios of the Flemish portrait painter Ferdinand Elle and the French painter George Lallemand.  French art and the way it was taught and learnt by young aspiring artists had yet to change and apprenticeships with established artists was still the only way young men would learn to become painters.  It would soon change in France when academic training for up and coming artists would supplant this old system.  It was not until 1648 that the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture was founded by Cardinal Mazarin.  The purpose of this academy was to professionalize the artists working for the French court and give them a stamp of approval.

Around 1623 Poussin met Giovanni Battista Marino in Paris.  Marino was court poet to Marie de Medici at Lyon.  The poet was very impressed with Poussin’s work and urged him to travel to Rome to widen his artistic experience.  Poussin had already made two unsuccessful attempts to go to the Eternal City but in 1624, aged thirty, he made it to Rome and initially lodged with the French painter, Simon Vouet.  Life in the city proved difficult as Poussin was always short of money.  However he was befriended by Cassino dal Pozzo, a wealthy antiquarian and secretary to Cardinal Francesco Barberini, who were both to become Poussin’s earliest patrons.  It was in 1628 that Poussin received two major commissions; the first was from Barberini, for a pair of large history paintings, The Death of Germanicus and The Destruction of the Temple at Jerusalem.  The paintings were well received.  The following year a commission from the Vatican for an altarpiece resulted in The Martyrdom of Saint Erasmus which is My Daily Art Display featured painting today.   The work was not greeted with universal acclaim in fact it was a comparative failure with the art critics of Rome.   It could well have been the fact that Poussin was French and that the Italians did not take to his attempt to compete with the Italian masters of the Baroque style on their own ground.   After this Poussin ceased competing for large public commissions and would paint only for private patrons and even then would confine his work to formats which were seldom larger than five feet in length.   

In 1630 he became ill.  It is believed that he contracted venereal disease.  He was taken to the house of his friend Jacques Dughet, whose daughter Anna Maria cared for him.  Poussin and Anna Maria married in 1630 but the couple never had any children.   Anna’s brother, Gaspard Dughet studied art as a pupil of Poussin and was later to take Poussin’s surname as his own.

By now news of his achievements filtered back to his home country and the court of Louis XIII and the powerful Cardinal Richelieu.  He was summoned by the court to return and reluctantly he had to acquiesce to the royal command and in 1640 he returned to Paris.  He was offered commissions for types of work he was not used to nor really competent to carry out, including the decoration of the Grande Galérie of the Louvre palace.  Worse still, the works he did complete did not bring forth the admiration he had anticipated, so annoyed at the lack of acclaim, he left Paris in 1642 and returned to Rome.   Ironically after his death, Poussin’s style of painting was accepted and acknowledged and in the late seventeenth century it was glorified by the French Academy.

Poussin was never a well man and his health started to decline more rapidly when he was in his mid fifties and with it came problems with his hands which suffered from ever worsening tremors.    In his later paintings one could detect the unsteadiness of his hand. He died in Rome in 1665 aged seventy-one and was buried in the church of San Lorenzo in Lucina, his wife having predeceased him.

And so to today’s painting, The Martyrdom of Saint Erasmus, which Poussin completed in 1629.  Nicolas Poussin’s altarpiece depicting the Martyrdom of St. Erasmus was commissioned in 1628 for the for the altar of the right transept of Saint Peter’s Basilica, the Chapel of St. Erasmus, in which relics of the Saint are preserved.  It was part of the ongoing decoration of the great basilica.  The commission had been initially given to Pietro da Cortona but was then assigned to Poussin in 1628 who used the preparatory sketches of Cortona’s as a basis for the work.  Poussin was probably obliged to produce not only a preliminary compositional drawing but also a painted modello, a model, to give his patrons a clear idea of his intentions

In the painting of Saint Erasmus, also known by his Italian name, Saint Elmo, we see the subject in the foreground.   He was the bishop of Formiae, Campagna, Italy, and suffered martyrdom in 303 AD, during Diocletian’s persecution of the Christians.  The setting is a public square.  The painting shows the almost naked Erasmus being disembowelled.   To the left of him we see a priest dressed in white robes talking to Erasmus and pointing upwards to the statue of Hercules, a pagan idol that Erasmus had refused to worship and which resulted in his martyrdom.  In the left mid ground we see a Roman soldier on horseback who is overseeing the execution.  It is a horrific and gruesome scene.  We see Erasmus’ executioner, dressed in a red loin cloth, extracting the intestines of the martyr who is still alive, and they are being fed on to what looks like the rollers of a ship’s windlass, which is being slowly turned.  Above we see two angels descending, one of who is carrying a palm and crown which are the symbols of martyrdom.   

The painting remained in the basilica until the eighteenth century at which time it was replaced by a copy in mosaic and the original transferred to the pontifical palace of the Quirinal. It was then taken to Paris in 1797 following the Treaty of Tolentino between France and the Papal States during the French Revolutionary Wars.  It returned to Italy in 1820 and it became part of the Vatican Art Collection of Pius VI.

Let me end this blog with two pieces of trivia.   When a blue light appears at mastheads of ships before and after a storm, the seamen took it as a sign of Erasmus’s protection.   This phenomenon is known as “St. Elmo’s fire”.    Erasmus is also appealed to when suffering from stomach cramps and colic. This probably comes about due to the way the saint met his death!

For another of Poussin’s paintings, Rinaldo and Armida, look at my blog of March 8th.