Sir Edward John Poynter, Bt., P.R.A., R.W.S. 1836-1919
- Sir Edward John Poynter, Bt., P.R.A., R.W.S.
- the corner of the villa
- signed with initials and dated in the mosaic: CCC E.J.P. LXXXIX
- oil on canvas
- 62 1/2 by 62 1/2 cm. ; 24 1/2 by 24 1/2 in.
Mrs Renton, 1897;
London, Sotheby's, 8th November 1995, lot 234;
Magazine of Art, 1889, p. 271;
Art Journal, 1889, p. 217;
Cosmo Monkhouse, Sir Edward John Poynter, P.R.A., in Easter Art Annual, 1897, illus. frontispiece;
Joseph Kestner, Mythology and Misogyny, 1989, p. 222
'It is sufficient to say that these little pictures of Sir Edward, so carefully arranged, so exquisitely wrought, charm by their daintiness and refinement, and often also by the delicate opalescence of their colour. Nothing that is not beautiful is allowed to enter into their composition.' (Sir E. J. Poynter, P.R.A.: His Life and Work, by Cosmo Monkhouse, in The Art Journal Easter Annual 1897, p. 23).
Water spills from a fountain and the flutter of dove's wings stir the cool langour of a marble and mosaic retreat, where three young girls take respite from the sultry Mediterranean sun to lounge, laze, dream and gossip amid the glimmer of refracting mosaic and marble sheen. The eldest girl, a demure young maiden in her late teens, has laid out a leopard-skin in a secluded corner of a fabulously decorated Peristyle courtyard and feeds one of the half-tame birds which also take refuge among the oleanders in the protected garden. A Corner of the Villa is the type of domestic image of utopian classicism at which Poynter excelled, every surface glittering and sumptuous and the atmosphere humid and somnolent.
Whilst discussing A Corner of the Villa and other pictures of the same year, Cosmo Monkhouse wrote 'They challenge comparison with the work of Mr. Alma-Tadema, because their subjects are similar, and they are distinguished by their careful execution and the dextrous painting of marble and other accessories, but there the parallel stops. One is the most personal, the other the most impersonal of painters; one seeks for colour rather than form, the other for form rather than colour; one has a livelier humanity, the other a purer style. The similarity between the two artists is on the surface, but there is a deeper affinity between Poynter and Leighton, both of whom were actuated by the same aims and ideals.' (Sir E. J. Poynter, P.R.A.: His Life and Work, by Cosmo Monkhouse, in The Art Journal Easter Annual 1897, p. 23). Poynter's attention to archaeological and architectural detail has the panache of Alma-Tadema, who like Poynter was enormously influenced by the art and design of Pompeii. The mosaic frieze of water birds in A Corner of the Villa was painted from a famous mosaic found at Pompeii, whilst the bronze figure of Bacchus towering above the font with his brimming cornucopia, was also based upon a statue found amongst the volcanic ashes. The small panel showing a Bacchic mask and examples of several of the ornamental borders seen in A Corner of the Villa, were found at Pompeii and dissipated through nineteenth century engravings and photographs. As was pointed out by one of Poynter's biographers 'how poor would have been the accomplishments of any modern European school without the example of Italy!' (ibid Monkhouse, p. 6). Poynter had been fascinated by the city of Pompeii since 1865 when he painted his most famous image Faithful Unto Death (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool), depicting a sentinel loyal to his orders remaining at his post as the city is destroyed around him. This picture was based upon an account of the finding of a petrified corpse of a guard in full armour found at one of the gates of the city. Poynter's great interest in reconstructing the ancient world was partly influenced by his great friend and mentor, the classical painter Frederic Leighton, who gave Poynter his first art training after their meeting in Rome in November 1853. Also influential was the work of Charles Gleyre and Rudolphe Boulanger, whose delicious classical nudes in marble settings were clearly imprinted on the young art student when he studied in their ateliers in Paris between 1856 and 1859. By the 1880s, Poynter's conception of the ancient world was so sophisticated and harmonious that he was no longer compelled to paint the more heroic subjects of classicism, such as Israel in Egypt (Guildhall Art Gallery, London) or The Catapult (Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle), which awed the critics and public. He was now able to paint the more domestic life of ancient civilisation, which in many ways is less easy than the strenuous dramas of the epic classical pictures, which to a certain extent are successful because of their force and drama, but perhaps lack the sensitivity which is so ably presented in A Corner of the Villa.
A Corner of the Villa, relates to a group of small pictures painted by Poynter in late 1880s. The first of this group was Under the Sea Wall of 1888 (FIG. 1 unlocated), depicting a solitary lethargic girl in the same pose as the central figure in A Corner of the Villa, seated in the shade of the steps from a palace to the ocean, eating pomegranates. The same pose and the same model were used again for A Greek Girl; On the Terrace of 1889 (FIG. 2 Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool) in which the subject is again the inactivity of everyday life in classical Greece or Rome. This pose and unidentified model clearly appealed greatly to Poynter and A Corner of the Villa was yet another study of virtually the same figure as seen in A Greek Girl and in reverse in Under the Sea Wall. A Corner of the Villa is however, the most successful and complete of the pictures, intelligent in the balance of the composition and gorgeous in colour. The design of the mosaics and the flowing fountain predict the sunlit glitter of the various versions of When the World Was Young of 1891 and 1892, Water Babies of 1900 and Cloe, whilst the child's fascination by the bird recalls the picture now at Tate Britain, Outward Bound. The closest comparison however, should be drawn between A Corner of the Villa and A Corner of the Market Place (unlocated) painted in 1889 and regarded as the pendant to the present picture. A Corner of the Market also depicts two young ladies of similar ages to those in A Corner of the Villa, attending a joyous child. In A Corner of the Market Place the girls are humble wreath-makers, dressed simply and presumably at a communal water well making the votive offerings they will sell in the afternoon when the marketplace becomes crowded again after the siesta. In comparison the girls in A Corner of the Villa are the daughters of a more wealthy household, dressed in more decorous garments and surrounded by more opulent décor. Their time is spent in idle contemplation and the idea of Dolce Far Niente, the favourite title for paintings of classical women busily doing nothing, is paramount.
Monkhouse described the group thus, 'The spirit of all is purely idyllic' and singled out A Corner of the Villa for particular praise, 'the latter is remarkable for the beauty and variety of detail, birds and fruit, marble and mosaics, all selected with rare taste and rendered with inexhaustible patience and fidelity.' (ibid Monkhouse, p. 23)