Misunderstood Genius: British Neoclassical Artist John William Godward

  • August 27, 2014 11:44

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Godward's "Phyleis" renders the Greek tragedy with an exquisite color palette and meticulous detailing
M.S. Rau Antiques, New Orleans

Known as the most talented Neoclassical painter of all time, John William Godward’s (1861-1922) Classical-inspired canvases, with their sensual subjects and scrupulous attention to historical detail, reflect a complexity and sensitivity unlike those composed by any other artist of the Victorian era.

Godward’s technical skills were second to none. His works were often compared to those of Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema (to whom Godward was a protégé) depicting Greco-Roman themes with maidens draped in sheer fabrics. Yet, the artistic prowess of the two masters could not be more distinct. Godward’s attention to detail was, in a word, fantastic, and he spent much time and energy researching such elements as architecture and dress to make his paintings as realistic as possible. The ingenious means of rendering these details on canvas could easily be taken for granted by the average viewer. For instance, the sheer drapes seen on his subjects were attained by first painting his model nude, then painting a clothing on top that he would scrape off before it fully dried in order to create a translucent effect. His rendering of marbles, often referred to as the “Marble School” illustrates this intense, archeological study of the Classical era, and is largely regarded as second-to-none.

In the oil on canvas entitled Phyleis, the artist presents the Greek mythological tale of unrequited love meticulously executed. Her forlorn face is offset by her beautifully draped physique and the breathtaking depiction of marble and mosaic work. This grand treatment of subject and surroundings is also seen in the amazing painting entitled A Signal. Magnificent samplings of various marbles composed alongside flowing sheer fabrics give the viewer the impression of looking upon a photograph.

Little is known about Godward’s life outside of his oeuvre. Personal papers and photos of the artist were all destroyed by his already-estranged family, who were ashamed of his career choice and the fact that he took his own life. Fully aware of the current art trend towards the avant-garde and the fading tradition of Classical painting during his lifetime, Godward had stated in his suicide note that “the world is not big enough” for him and Picasso.

Prior to the 1960s, artists like Godward were, for the most part, names only the most astute 19th-century art scholars might recognize. It wasn't until these same scholars and museum curators began to truly appreciate his talents, along with scores of other great turn-of-the-century painters, that his paintings really came into their own. Today, works by this once glossed-over artist generate considerable attention on the market and exceed the million-dollar price point at auction, and rightly so.

Godward's mastery of rendering textures is perfectly illustrated in "A Signal"
M.S. Rau Antiques, New Orleans


To learn more about the works of John William Godward, click here.


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