Messrs. Henry J. Mullen, Ltd., Harrogate
Sale: Sotheby's, London, March 26, 2004, lot 68, illustrated
Abandoned shortly after her birth on Mount Parthenion by her father Schoenus who had wanted a son, the Arcadian maiden Atalanta was left for dead, alone and unprotected on the side of the mountain. When approached by a ravenous she-bear, the fearless infant spread her arms in welcome and was thus adopted by the beast who suckled and reared her as one of her own cubs. Atalanta grew into a formidable huntress and one of the most beautiful women in Arcadia. She had sworn an allegiance to the Virgin Huntress Diana and though continually pestered by suitors, refused to marry. Tired by the continual entreaties for her hand, she set a challenge; that whoever could beat her in a race would become her husband. Confident in the speed of her lissom limbs, she weighed herself down by carrying a bow and quivers and gave the crowd of men who arrived for the race a head start. Any unfortunate opponent overtaken by Atalanta fell in the dust pierced by an arrow from the maiden's bow as one by one she defeated her suitors. At last, only one runner was left to be conquered but as Atalanta approached young Hippomenes he dropped the Golden Apples of the Hesperides given to him by Venus, who contrived to see Atalanta wed. Transfixed by their glittering beauty, Atalanta stopped to gather the apples and Hippomenes was able to race towards the finishing line and claim his bride. Thus Atalanta was wed to Hippomenes and lived in passionate wedded bliss until they defiled a scared temple with their incessant love-making and an enraged Zeus turned both husband and wife into lions to halt their depravity (It was thought by the Ancients that lions did not mate with their own kind, but favoured panthers).
Godward was clearly drawn to the figure of Atalanta and painted another, very different head of the huntress in 1899 (see: Vern G. Swanson, John William Godward; The Eclipse of Classicism, Woodbridge, Suffolk, p. 198). By comparison, this previously undocumented Atalanta of 1908 is a more successful composition and painted from a striking new model, Miss Goldsmith. Although Godward was clearly greatly inspired by the statuesque sibyls painted by Frederic, Lord Leighton in the 1890s, there are few instances in which the correlation can be seen so clearly than with Godward's Atalanta and Leighton's painting of the same title painted in 1893. Both artists painted the head and shoulders of striking female models in profile with bare shoulders and hair wept away from the neck. The detail of the golden band around Atalanta's arm is also present in both painters' pictures and the backgrounds are of palace walls. The moment depicted in both Leighton and Godward's paintings is as Atalanta prepares for the race, her hair bound up and her robes fastened loosely for running. In stark comparison is Sir Edward Poynter's Atalanta's Race (thought to have been destroyed in World War II) which was part of the decorative scheme painted for Lord Wharncliffe in which the finale of the race is played out with epic drama and movement.
The photograph on the preceding page is the only known photograph of Godward.
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