In 1892, when the present work was painted, Godward was poised on the brink of his great career. He had exhibited two oils at the Royal Academy the previous year, Sweet Siesta of a Summer Day (see lot 39) and Clymene (1891, location unknown, also featuring Lily as model), earning him critical accolades. As seen in Clymene, Godward excelled at single-figure compositions and unlike his pictures from the 1880s, which presented anecdotal narratives within architectural settings, those from the 1890s held an Aesthetic focus. With their brilliant coloration and solid compositions, these works present a more abstract suggestion of mood and subject and are similar to those of Godward's artistic hero, Frederic, Lord Leighton. Paintings like Leighton's Lachrymae (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) and Flaming June (Museo de Arte de Ponce, Puerto Rico) appear to have been the precedent for Godward's solitary women in marble settings. In The Fragrant Rose, Godward has scaled his canvas to be among his largest, with her three-quarter length figure essentially presented in life-size. Behind her is a budding oleander and richly painted Mediterranean landscape overlooking an azure bay, a harmonious paradise where flowers bloom, the sun always shines, and lapping waves are faintly heard from far below.
From the very beginning of his career, Godward was an exacting researcher, sourcing every element of his paintings from public collections or from photographs and objects that he acquired himself, which would reappear in multiple compositional arrangements. Here the model’s golden peplos (also seen in Clymene) is belted with a ribbon that is dyed in expensive Tyrian purple, which was extracted from snails. At her shoulder are circular brooches made of garnet cabochons mounted in gold with filigree decoration, likely Victorian in Etruscan-style. The artist contrasts these vivid details with the expertly rendered three-dimensionality of the cool, white frieze, a detail of a horseman from the Parthenon (fig. 3), part of the Elgin Marbles held in the Duveen Gallery at the British Museum. Recognized as the “master of marble,” Godward lavishes attention on his depiction of the material, and treats these elements as if they are broad planes of gemstones in variegated hues, as seen in the verde antico at lower left.
We would like to thank Neil Pettigrew for his contribution to this catalogue entry.
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