John William Godward devoted his entire career to the depiction of feminine beauty, painting favourite models again and again in exquisite studies of beauty and colour. His greatest talent was his skill at rendering textures and fabrics and his arrangement of beautiful forms to create an aesthetic ensemble. There is never any threat or danger, or even any importance of narrative. His work is typical of the Aesthetic movement, being essentially without narrative or dramatic charge, decorative and consciously devoid of any suggestion of movement or emotion. The women are always content, alluring and absorbed, but what or who they dream of is not explained or important.
Isis was originally a deity central to the mythology of ancient Egypt, the daughter of Geb the god of the earth and Nut the godess of the sky, but was later adopted by the Romans during their expansion of the Empire. Groves sacred to Isis were built across the classical world, in Greece and Rome and as far east as Assyria. Isis was identified with fertility and re-birth thus her temples and shrines were sacred to femininity.
In the Grove of the Temple of Isis depicts a voluptuous young woman on the steps leading to a temple. She does not appear to be a priestess and her loose toga and stola tied at the waist, bound hair and tambourine suggest that she is a dancer contemplating the devotional festivities that will take place after night falls in the sacred grove. Beside her and amongst the blossom of an almond tree is the carved bronze figure of a lion based upon the marble decorations of the famous fountain in the centre of Piazza del Popolo in Rome, which was close to the Villa Strohl Fern where Godward had stayed during a period painting in Rome. The painting epitomises the vogue for ladies in togas which held middle-class London under its enduring spell well into the twentieth century. Technically superb, with gorgeous colour and a sensual suggestion of pagan revelry, In the Grove of the Temple of Isis exemplifies the very best of Godward's work.
In the Grove of the Temple of Isis was painted in 1915 while Godward was staying in Rome at the Villa Strohl-Fern, in one of the artist's studios in the gardens of the Villa Borghese. Godward had been at the villa since 1912, and although an outsider among the colony of Italian artists who made their home on the side of Monte Parioli, he worked industriously at his series of paintings of luscious young women in pagan garb. Surrounded by the woodlands of pine and cedar and enclosed by the high walls of the villa, Godward found seclusion and amongst the classical sculpture collected by the Alsatian-born Alfred Wilhelm Strohl-Fern, he found inspiration. There was no shortage of beautiful female models willing to drape themselves in togas, their hair bound up in a bandeaux and their ears burdened by jewellery of ancient design. The artist Sir William Russell Flint described a visit to Godward's studio in the winter of 1912 '[Godward] had one of the finest studios in the Villa Strohl-Fern grounds. It had a wonderful outlook, and among its decorations was a horse's skull locally supposed to be that of Strohl-Fern himself 'when young'. The likeness was remarkable.' (Vern G. Swanson, J. W. Godward, The Eclipse of Classicism, 1997, p. 100)
This was a time of success for the often troubled Godward, who was awarded a gold medal at the Rome International exhibition of 1913 for his picture The Belvedere.
We are grateful to Dr. Vern Swanson, Director of Springville Museum of Art, Utah, for his assistance cataloguing this picture.
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