A Dilettante demonstrates Godward’s painstaking attention to detail and dedication to faithfully reproducing objects uncovered from the ancient world. Sitting on a Roman Savonarola chair, the model’s diaphanous teal gown is so delicately rendered that her proper right leg is just barely visible through the translucent material, which cascades from her knee to her sandal like water. The table with fluted base, which resembles those found at the excavation of Pompeii, is so meticulously painted that it handily conveys the heavy, cool tactility of marble. The green foliage is lush, and the colorful poppies and lilies, studied from life, have an almost photographic realism. Indigenous to the Mediterranean region, poppies were associated with the goddess Demeter and represented fertility and bounty during the harvest. They are a motif that appears throughout Godward’s oeuvre to further emphasize the youthful beauty of the model.
The clay statuette is modeled after the ancient Greek terracotta "Titeux" Dancer, an example of which can be found in the Louvre’s collection (fig. 2). These veiled figurines, often painted in color, were produced by Athenian artists between 375-350 BCE and were first excavated at the site of the Acropolis in 1846. The significance of the objects remain unknown: the little dancer could be a nymph of the cult of Dionysus or a bride of the cult of Aphrodite about to be unveiled by her betrothed. The Louvre’s example measures 21 centimeters and is roughly the same height as the figurine pictured here. In the nineteenth century, the "Titeux" Dancer became associated with the more widely known terracottas excavated at Tanagra, Boeotia in 1870, which sparked a craze in France after they were exhibited at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1878. The art market was inundated with both authentic and forged figurines, and many artists kept versions in their studios. Jean-Léon Gérôme was inspired by the Tanagra terracottas in his own sculpted and painted work, perhaps most famously in Sculpturae Vitam Insufflat (Painting Breathes Life Into Sculpture) (1893, Art Gallery of Ontario, fig. 3). Exhibited at the Cercle de l’Union Artistique in Paris in 1890 and later with Knoedler, New York, it is possible that Godward had seen an engraving after this work, if not in person then on one of his journeys to Paris, and was inspired to try his own hand at the subject of an ancient artisan at work on her figurines.
By the 1870s, the British Museum's collection included a few examples of veiled Tanagra figurines, and in the decades that followed 'Tanagramania' permeated the arts and literature beyond Europe and into England. Commercially successful contemporary painters such as Albert Moore, James McNeill Whistler, and Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema were indebted to these archaeological finds (Katherine Harloe and Nicoletta Momigliano, "Introduction: Hellenomania: ancient and modern obsessions with the Greek past," Hellenomania, Oxon, United Kingdom, 2018, n.p.). Alma-Tadema, of whom Godward was a devoted follower, paid homage to Gérôme and the Tanagra excavation in The Golden Hour (1908, Private Collection, fig. 4), which features Gérôme’s hoop dancer statuette in bronze, a painted version of which can be seen in Sculpturae Vitam Insufflat. Alma-Tadema owned his own copy of this figurine which remained in his studio until it was sold in his posthumous estate sale. Even the author and playwright Oscar Wilde made numerous references to the figurines in his classic The Picture of Dorian Gray. Of the titular character’s love interest, Sibyl, he writes:
"She had never seemed to me more exquisite. She had all the delicate grace of that Tanagra figurine that you have in your studio, Basil. Her hair clustered round her face like dark leaves round a pale rose." (Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, , 1992 edition, Chapter 6, p. 62)
Godward was not immune to the influence of these artistic and literary sources. Previously shrouded in mystery, the last year of Godward’s life is better understood by the reappearance of A Dilettante. The model in the present work is Marietta Avico, who consistently sat for the artist in the last eighteen months of his life. During the inquest into the artist’s death, Avico attested to Godward’s insomnia and claimed she was one of the last people to see the artist alive. Though in 1922 Godward had largely receded into the confines of his studio, he was still actively engaged with popular turn-of-the-century artistic trends as A Dilettante illustrates, making the present work a lasting testament to an artist who remained masterful until the end of his life.
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