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“This is one of the most effective oils by Godward, utilising the elements for which he is most noted. A number of canvases with young girls teasing cats were produced, starting about this time in his career... Dressed in a yellow tunic with purple stola one of Godward's favorite models sits upon a marble exedra seat with the Mediterranean behind. These simple elements, typical of the artist, combine to form one of the most effective of his oils.” (Vern Swanson, John William Godward, The Eclipse of Classicism, 1997, p. 202)
In Idleness, technical mastery and pure fantasy come together. John William Godward depicts a moment of serene perfection, painted when the artist was just 29 years old, but already an accomplished member of the Royal Academy of Art in London and at the height of his career.
Godward had an established reputation for paintings of young women in a classical settings and dress. He could convey, with sensitivity and control of the medium, a moment of true beauty.
Idleness, painted in London in 1900, was one of twenty or so oil paintings on canvas that Godward sold that year. In the painting a maiden appears on a small stage, only a few feet deep, and the effect is realistic to the point of trompe l’oeil. The size of the original painting is 111cm by 73 cm., 43 3/4 by 28 3/4 inches— approximately three feet wide by four feet high. This is the quintessential Godward: a beautiful maiden in a classical setting, a perfect world realistically rendered. Shapes, colors and textures offer extreme variety, and are composed in such a way to bring a harmonious gestalt.
The palette of contrasting citron yellow gown, violet wrap, turquoise sea and ginger kitten dazzles. The color scheme is rich with contrasting colors, with the cadmium yellow dominating the cooler violet, turquoise, and blue. This provides stability to the composition while allowing a variety of colors to refresh the eye.
The maiden’s pose is lyrical, a relaxed contrapposto z-shape. The contrasting line of her hair against her face moves us down her arm to her hand holding the peacock feather. The shaft of the feather crosses the straight line of the bench, echoing the overall plus-shape made by the maiden’s vertical figure crossing the composition’s horizontal elements. The shaft of the feather then bends to the kitten, who seems to have just jumped into the frame. Our eye then follows the sinuous lines of the kitten. Lastly, the kitten’s tail leads the eye to the maiden’s upper arm, which takes us back up to the top of the painting. Should your your eye stray from the main subject, to perhaps explore the landscape in the distance, the stem of the oleander and the vertical veins in marble bench will gently lead you back to the action. The curves of the woman, feather and kitten contrast against the sea’s horizontal line and the seams of the bench. The fluid lines leading us around the subject of the painting contrast with the straight lines of the setting. We are never lost or confused. This is virtuoso composition.
Godward’s total control of the dynamics, colors and shapes within the painting are a testament to his sensitivity and refinement. Everything is painted in exquisite better-than-life-like detail. The beautifully rendered folds of the yellow gown, the micro-details of the feather, the laced shoes and the fur of the kitten are in perfect focus, almost hyper-realistic. However, the woman’s skin, hair and full features are as soft as her gaze. The subject’s lovely doll-like face is nothing but softness, a soothing calm like the distant sea. Idleness sensitively combines the earthly, the sea, the distinct feeling of seaside air and the smooth solid bench with the classical ideal of a young woman. Opposites are united.
The model here exhibits a sensuality— she is all curves compared to the strong lines found elsewhere in the composition. She is sensual without being overtly sexual. With eyes lowered she is coy and remote, in her own world. Idleness isn’t a painting about a specific person, about her personality or her inner world, but rather about the beautiful surface of her outer world. The surface of the bench, the drapery of her dress, her soft black lashes—texture, the vividness of her flesh against the stone, make this world real.
Godward’s technical mastery in capturing all this texture give this painting impact. We can almost feel the smoothness of the marble, the solid edge of the bench, the softness of the kitten. The naturalism and the realism are believable. We are separated from the maiden by just a few feet, with only a kitten and the sea air between us, and we can easily step into her world. The interest lies in this dynamic: the tension between an ancient world and its perfect rendering. Godward doesn't bring us a dreamy, blurry past. He shows us a perfect re-creation—it’s like time travel. The details are so immediate, so real, we are transported to mythic Greece, as were the Victorians for whom this was painted.
The subject is quietly active, teasing the kitten with a peacock feather— the peacock feather being a popular motif at the turn of the previous century. As the woman casually engages with the kitten, the oleander in the background soaks up the sea air, the sun, and like us, the view of the turquoise water. The world Godward creates in this painting, as in his other works, Summer Flowers and The Love Letter is one of blue skies and perfect contentment. With ideal beauty, in the manner Athena and Aphrodite, all Godward’s young maidens grace the world in diaphanous gowns, without a care, with nothing better to do than read a love letter or enjoy a kitten.
The moment witnessed in the painting is a quiet one, without conflict or drama. Our first and lasting impression is of peaceful place during idyllic times. The woman, the setting and the atmosphere are perfect. We don’t need anything except this cool bench under a perfect sky. Yet because of the tensions Godward sets up in the composition, the painting isn’t boring.
Godward painted this in his studio in Chelsea in London in 1900, a time referred to as late Victorian. During this time, the world was changing drastically. Industry was changing England. Photography and modernism were changing art. This painting provides an escape to simpler time, no smokestacks, train tracks or anything that would intrude into our fantasy are visible. Even her bracelet harkens back to a time when jewelry was anything but what we now consider Victorian. It is anything but ornate. There isn’t a hint that this painter, or his subject, has any notion of what what is going on elsewhere in the world during the time of industrial and artistic revolution.
This is feel-good art for Victorians. In France, Picasso was in his blue phase, Van Gogh’s Cafe Terrace at Night was already twelve years old. While in London, Monet painted the spewing smokestacks seen in his Waterloo Bridge Misty Morning. The difference in the mentalities is striking. Other artists were part of a huge groundswell of artistic change at this time. This was a time that many artists created paintings that challenged the viewer; Godward was part of a movement that painted to please.
In 1900 Britain was an great empire, collecting art from ancient Greece and displaying it in their museums. The great sculptures of the Parthenon and the Elgin Marbles, which originally adorned the top of the exterior of the Parthenon in Athens, Greece, were brought to London and exhibited. One of Godward’s pastimes was to walk to the flea markets where, as an artist in his twenties, he could pick up the odd Greek antiquity to use as a reference for his paintings. Godward used these artifacts to evoke an ideal, traditional world. His paintings reassured. Yes, there is an industrial and artistic revolution going on, but we the Londoners of 1900, are the heirs to the Greeks and Romans, the inventors democracy and the arts.
The attention to artifacts and antiquities in the paintings— the figure’s bracelet, shoes, the style of her dress and the bench, shows that Godward knew that this spoke to his audience. The viewers of Godward’s paintings, his patrons, would have read the Greek classics. They would have visited the Greek antiquities exhibition at British museum. Greek mythology was very much on trend in London at the time. Godward and his contemporaries, for example Lawrence Alma-Tadma, brought the recently acquired Greek sculptures to life. But Godward doesn’t show us a character in battle, as we would have seen in the Parthenon sculptures or the Elgin Marbles. He shows us someone at leisure, with a pampered pet, appreciating the everyday moment. Someone like his viewers.
Frederic Leighton, one of the most famous artists of the 19th century, was the president of the British Royal Academy at this time. Godward, being a member of the academy looked to Leighton’s work for subjects and style points. Leighton’s Flaming June, painted in 1895, could have been an inspiration for many of Godward’s subsequent paintings. In Idleness, like Flaming June, the subject’s skin is as polished as the marble bench she rests upon.
The artwork being more about form, surface and color and less about personal drama puts these artists squarely in the British Aesthetic Movement taking place at the time. When choosing a classic character, such as Psyche, Leighton, and Godward looking to Leighton, chose beauty over story. The paintings are not about drama or deep emotion, they don’t engage with psychological intrigue. The artists of this movement weren’t about narrative, but rather formed a cult of beauty.
They looked back to artists who painted classical figures, like David and Ingres. Idleness is painted on a foundation of realism that had been explored in the 19th century, that in fact had 500 years of history to support it, but with an eye to calming 20th century British anxieties about class shifts and technological advances. Beautiful women in luxurious fabrics wrap us in reassurance.
Idleness is beauty for beauty’s sake, we don’t need a story or a message. The paintings of this time were purposefully superficial, but in the highest sense of the word. Perfectly rendered surfaces, like William Morris’s wallpaper, are all we need to experience true beauty.
This painting speaks to the fears and aspirations of the intended audience. The response of the audience to this message was clear, Godward’s paintings were so popular he didn’t need to show his work in galleries. The paintings, twenty to twenty-five a year at his peak, sold themselves.
To create these striking beauties, Godward had his favorite models. The professional model we see in Idleness, Florence Bird, appears in many of Godward’s other paintings, including Summer Flowers. Her Italian beauty suited Godward’s Greco-Roman themes, and made her a particular favorite. She worked at the Royal Academy Life Drawing Schools studio where Godward painted during this time, and was a much sought-after model. She posed for works by other artists who also painted classical subjects, including Herbert James Draper.
Perhaps Godward’s most famous painting is his 1887 work, Dolce Far Niente, featuring a similar maiden, probably Florence Bird, in repose. In a way, Idleness could be considered English for the Italian “the sweetness of doing nothing.” The Italian concept was surely one he grew to love during his time Italy, and could be the name of this painting as well.
A maiden in a classical setting and clothing were Godward’s hallmark and Idleness exhibits everything we wish to see from his Victorian neo-classical style: the fresh beauty, the idyllic setting that transports us to a place with a bright blue sky.
Like her gown, which would have been purchased from a seamstress on a high street in London that supplied party clothes, this painting isn’t about ancient Greece. Idleness was painted for a turn of the century audience looking to secure its place in an ideal world. The woman is comfortably contained in the painting, she has everything she needs. The poisonous oleander, a symbol in Greek myths of charm and beauty, support the theme. There is nothing to fear, we have only loveliness here. From both sides of the painting, the marble bench reaches towards us, solid and reassuring it beckons us, inviting us into this world of pure beauty.
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