Previously unrecorded, this painting marks an important rediscovery and adds a masterpiece to the artist's known oeuvre. Painted in 1914, it predates John William Godward's A Fair Reflection (1915) (sold in these rooms, May 4, 2012, lot 12), which is a graduated variation on the present composition. The most marked difference between these two pictures is the deep red painted fresco framing his subject and the elaborate decorative architecture of the interior. These motifs are seen in other compositions by the artist, but are most effectively employed here to create a striking scenic backdrop to his sublime model. The composition also displays many of the hallmarks of the Aesthetic Movement, which promoted the importance of formal and sensual qualities over visual narrative (see Albert Moore, lot 10). While Godward maintains a relationship with his subject, albeit a voyeuristic one, his foremost concern in this composition is its formal arrangement and the balance of surfaces that are hard and soft, opaque and translucent. The result is a tour-de-force of color, form and structural harmonies.
Just as artists today rely on their audience's knowledge of art history and popular culture, Godward's Victorian audience was well-versed in classical imagery. The excavation of Pompeii in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries captivated the popular imagination, and Godward has emblazoned his model against a red ground that may reference the walls of the House of Julia Felix, a wealthy heiress, property owner, business woman and public figure in Pompeii. Her villa was first discovered in 1775 (and continues to be excavated to this day) and a richly decorated shrine was uncovered in 1912, which Godward may have visited. Like his contemporary, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (see lot 1), Godward was an exacting researcher, sourcing every element of his paintings from the collection at the British Museum, or from photographs and objects that he collected. The table top, for example, is strewn with various objets de toilette from antiquity: including the Roman glass Pyxis, a cylindrical box used for storing cosmetics, the ivory and wood box, and a hand mirror with Etruscan motif handle. The model is dressed in a teal colored stola (the feminine form of the ancient Roman toga), drawn tightly at the waist with a palla (Roman shawl) of a deep wine color, and tied with an exquisitely-painted patterned yellow ribbon. Her hair is twisted into a long cascading braid, which she is arranging on top of her head using ivory hairpins.
Recognized as the “master of marble,” Godward lavishes attention on his depiction of opus sectile, the ancient term for cut pieces of marble arranged in decorative motifs. He treats these elements as if they are broad planes of gemstones in variegated hues. Each variety can be identified, as the table top and leg are of pavonazzo or pavonazzetto, the pilaster and the outside of the dado are of verde antico, the frame within the dado is of alabastro fiorito, and the central panel is a form of breccia.
Very little is known about Godward’s biography. After working with his father in the insurance trade he trained to become an architect, and when he finally decided to pursue painting his family shunned him, allegedly cutting him out of every family photograph. While popular taste moved away from the neo-classicist style, he persisted to create a world of sun-drenched Mediterranean fantasy—one that he tried to realize in 1912 when he left his wife and children to live in a studio at the Villa Strohl Fern in Rome with his favorite model, an Italian woman who some scholars suggest may have been his mistress, and likely the model in the present work. According to Godward family lore: "He left in a rush, running off with his Italian model to Italy... His mother never forgave him for this breach of conduct. He shocked the family by living with his model" (Vern Swanson, John William Godward, The Eclipse of Classicism, Woodbridge, Suffolk, 1997, p. 96).
The title that Godward may have given this painting remains unrecorded, and while he sometimes used evocative titles such as When the Heart is Young or Idleness, he also aligned his models with strong figures from antiquity with titles such as Campaspe, Marcella or, as suggested for the present lot, Julia. Fittingly, the presumed first owner of this painting was Julia Sophia Winkelmeyer Straub, the enterprising daughter of the St. Louis brewer Julius Winkelmeyer. She was a consummate traveler and likely acquired the painting shortly after it was completed. Julia has remained in the collection of her descendants for generations and, as far as is known, this is the first time that the painting has been reproduced or seen in public since it joined her collection over a century ago.
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