Il Dolce far Niente is the title given to at least eight of Godward’s paintings but is applicable to almost his entire oeuvre. Meaning ‘sweet idleness’ it captures the spirit of Godward’s idealist art in which languid beautiful women idle away their time in the sunlit gardens of Roman palaces, cool marble interiors and on terraces overlooking azure oceans. His world was one of carefree hedonism, of romantic liaisons beneath boughs of oleander and dreamy introspection.
Godward was particularly skilled at rendering textures and in Il Dolce far Niente he contrasted smooth cold marble with animal-skins, blushed living flesh with diaphanous robes. The model is of an unusually slender and pale type for Godward who preferred sitters with a more Mediterranean appearance. Whilst most of the other pictures from the early 1890s depict members of the Pettigrew family of artist’s models, the facial features of this young model are less angular. She is probably the same golden-haired girl who posed for Daydreams in 1893 (Paul Mellon Centre for British Art). In the early 1890s Godward was living at St Leonard’s Studio in Smith Street, Chelsea and would have had the pick of the artist models who frequented the many artist’s studios in that bohemian part of London. She certainly has the self-assured confidence of an experienced model, looking directly out of the picture with an expression of invitation. The languor of her pose contrasts with the angularity of the architecture.
In Il Dolce far Niente Godward used the compositional device of showing a glimpse of terrace through a portal and sunlit sea beyond, which he had used in earlier pictures such as Ianthe painted in 1888 and A Pompeian Lady of 1891. This seems to have been suggested by Godward’s study of the work of Alma-Tadema and is present in pictures such as Oleander of 1882 (private collection). The tiger-skin is also an element found in Alma-Tadema’s work as a symbol of luxury and exoticism. Tadema had various animal pelts in his studio to use as props for his paintings and it is likely that Godward also had examples in his studio as they appear frequently. Sculptural details in the picture reflect Godward’s interest in the archaeology of Greece and Rome and particularly the excavations of Pompeii which revealed brightly-coloured wall paintings like that of the female dancer seen in the panel to the left of the chair in the present picture. The figure of a warrior carved in a low-relief marble panel is similar to the Parthenon frieze and the bronze herm portrait also appears to have been based on an existing example, as it is in The Bouquet of 1898 and The Sweet Siesta of a Summer Day of 1891.
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