Monday, 30 January 2012

Roman Bathing Venus 2: In the Tepidarium by John William Godward

In the Tepidarium (1913)

The classicist painter John William Godward didn't paint many nudes; largely relying on form fitting drapery to provide sensuous effect.  We looked at one of his earlier pictures, Venus Binding her Hair (1897) in a previous post and explored his life until that point.  In the Tepidarium was painted sixteen years later in Rome, rather than Chelsea, and is altogether a less monumental piece than the 90" tall Venus; this painting being around 40" tall.

Godward was driven away from his house, in 1905, due to the noise from the construction of the new Chelsea Football Club ground at Stamford Bridge.  He took the opportunity to travel to Italy for the first time. Godward stayed in Capri but travelled around southern Italy, sketching. 

In the Tepidarium pencil sketch (1913)

In the period 1910 to 1912 Godward moved to Rome more permanently and lived there, off and on, for a decade.  Godward was finding that London was becoming  hostile to his style of painting, as more modernist art held sway.  He hoped that Rome might be more appreciative of his style.  In addition, it seems that he left London to run off with his model, an Italian beauty.  It was said that his mother never forgave him for this unseemly behaviour, especially as she had never wanted him to become an artist in the first place.

Godward acquired a studio at the Villa Strohl-Fern in Parioli (now a very smart suburb of Rome, full of ambassadors' residences) at the edge of the Borghese Gardens (where Triple P used to go running and to the Roman Sport Centre gym, built underneath them).  Alfred Strohl-Fern (1847-1926) was an Alsatian who built the villa  in 1879.  The property had extensive wooded grounds which Strohl-Fern filled with classical statuary, grotoes and follies. By 1882 he had added nine artists studios and it soon became a creative colony, attracting painters, sculptors and musicians.  One of the first artists to visit, thirty years before Godward, was Arnold Böcklin, the Swiss painter of The Isle of the Dead which inspired Rachmaninov's symphonic poem of the same name. 

Godward's studio at the Villa Strohl-Fern

Godward's studio was at no 2 Villa Strohl-Fern and he spent every waking hour painting there.  In the Tepidarium was painted there in 1913; a good year for Godward, as he had won the gold medal at the Rome International Exhibition with The Belvedere.  This must have been a major filip for a painter who was feeling increasingly rejected at home.

Study for In the Tepidarium (1913)

There is an oil study for this painting  which has the figure lightly clad in a diaphonous gown.  Godward often changed his pictures from the original drawings or sketches and in this case we can see that he has moved the rather dominating curtain from in front of the figure to behind her in the final painting.  He then counters this block of colour with another drape on the other side of the figure, whose brighter colour provides more balance than the darker example in the sketch.  This sketch was sold by Christies in New York for $8,000 in 1994. 

The draperies in the finished picture, which was sold for £25,000 in 1984, are perhaps not Godward's best and he always struggled with the nude figure but what is marvellous in this painting is his treatment of the interior decoration.  At this point, perhaps inspired by the warmer weather in Rome, nearly all of Godward's paintings had an exterior setting so this was a rare incursion indoors.  His handling of the marble in this painting (especially that of the square column, back centre) is superb.  Even this pales in comparison to his rendering of the tesserae on the floor. Each one individually painted but shaded in such a way that the depressions in the floor can be seen by the alignment of the individual tiles. This must have been based on something he had seen in Rome, we suspect.

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