John William Godward, RBA (British, 1861-1922) Dolce far niente

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Lot 106
John William Godward, RBA
(British, 1861-1922)
Dolce far niente

Sold for £ 248,750 (US$ 308,703) inc. premium
John William Godward, RBA (British, 1861-1922)
Dolce far niente
signed and dated 'J.W.GODWARD.'07' (lower left)
oil on canvas
51.4 x 76.2cm (20 1/4 x 30in).


  • We are grateful to Dr. Vern Swanson for his assistance in cataloguing this lot, which will be included in his forthcoming updated John William Godward catalogue raisonné, currently in preparation.

    Thomas Mclean, London (19 March 1907).
    Miss Sarah Darnell of 161 Stamford Hill, North London; Sale, Christie's, London, 15 March 1925, lot 57.
    W. W. Sampson, London.
    Private collection, UK.

    McLean letter to Godward 19 March 1907 (Milo-Turner collection).
    E. Bénézit, Dictionnaire critique et documentaire des Peintres, Sculpteurs, Dessinateurs et Graveurs, Paris, 1976, VI, p. 80.
    Vern G. Swanson, John William Godward, The Eclipse of Classicism, 1997, p. 218, no. 2, as Dolce far niente (Girl with a bunch of grapes).

    It was the gospel of beauty, perfection, tradition and peace that Godward .... felt was most profoundly transmitted through the classical subject.

    (Vern Swanson, Godward and the Death of Greco-Roman Painting, Published in the Art Renewal Centre, January 2000)

    The great tragedy of John William Godward's story is that such a talented and astute artist-at times a rival to Alma-Tadema in his depictions of classical beauty- should feel so out of kilter with the world around him, that his art had become so anachronistic, that he took his own life, aged 61, in 1922.

    By then, many of the great exponents of this classical tradition had already gone. Alma-Tadema died in 1912, Waterhouse in 1917, and Sir Edward John Poynter, who as President of the Royal Academy was a great and influential champion of classical painting, died in 1919. As Christopher Wood observes, 'by the 1920s, the rule of Bloomsbury had begun. All Victorian painting was denounced as absurd, irrelevant, and totally lacking in significant form... for a classical painter, there was nothing to do but give up.'1

    Godward's disillusion with the artistic establishment in England had in fact started nearly two decades earlier. While he continued to exhibit works in Continental Europe, his last London submission was to the Royal Academy exhibition of 1905. As Vern Swanson notes, 'in all possibility he had come to the end of his interest in eliciting public approval in Great Britain for his art. It all seemed for him as if he was swimming against the critical tide'.2

    Scant records exist to document the timeline of Godward's life, but it is probable that he left for an extended trip to Italy in 1905 (at which time his correspondence address is given as 'c/o Thomas McLean', the artist's dealer until 1908, rather than his previous residence of Fulham Road). Swanson argues that this, and subsequent trips to Italy- visiting Capri, Naples, and Rome- does not lead to a dramatic shift in the artist's work, but rather galvanises his resolve, making him 'more sure of his artistic direction and more confident of his ability to express it'.3

    Thus by 1907, when the present lot was painted, Godward was confident in his direction and at the height of his technical abilities. The work would have been one of the last handled by Godward's long-term dealer and close ally, Thomas McLean, whose retirement due to ill health and subsequent death in 1908 must have had a profound effect on the reclusive artist. McLean had successfully exploited the reproduction print market, so Godward's work would have been well known by this time.

    Not seen on the market since 1925, Dolce Far Niente is a masterful example of Godward's work, showcasing his skill at portraying flesh, marble and cloth. On a high terrace overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, a beautiful young patrician woman, draped in green and golden robes, reclines on a pillow and lion skin, at the end of a marble bench. She is contemplating a grape she has plucked from the bunch she is holding. To the left is a shock of pink oleander blossom; beyond to the right, the sparkling aquamarine sea. The distinctive lion foot seat-end is a prop which Godward has also used in works such as The Pergola (On the Balcony) (1898, Manchester City Art Gallery), and Amaryllis (1903). Rather than painstakingly recreating Classical settings, Godward populated his studio with marbles, statues and other props, used to create a sense of 'Graeco-Roman pastiche'.4

    Commenting on the present lot, Vern Swanson notes that 'the title 'Dolce Far Niente' is often used by Godward because it, more than any other, encapsulates the mood he wishes to capture in his paintings, sweet doing nothing'. Swanson also speculates that the model for the present lot is 'probably his favourite from the pre-Rome period, a Miss Goldsmith, who also posed for Athenais (1908).'

    1 Christopher Wood, Olympian Dreamers, London, 1983, pp. 247-248.
    2 Vern Swanson, John William Godward, The Eclipse of Classicism, Woodbridge, 1988, p 79.
    3 Swanson, p. 83.
    4 Swanson, p. 54.
John William Godward, RBA (British, 1861-1922) Dolce far niente
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