There is nothing that can take the real joy out of living so thoroughly as one’s loved ones. John William Godward was unlucky enough to be born into a family of blue-nosed fools, the kind of snooty cretins who live to minify the aspirations of their children. Despite his considerable success in England’s art world (exhibits at the Royal Academy, owned his own studios, member of the Royal Institute of the British Arts) his banker family felt he had tarnished their reputation by daring to be an artist. By the time he was well away in his career they had gone so far as to remove his image from family pictures to disassociate themselves from this hoodlum-artist, thug of a son.
As the comedians would say, “Tough room.”
By 1908 he pretty much withdrew from British society altogether and though there are those who wonder why, his reasons seem self-evident to me.
Some folks associate his style with Leighton’s and it is true they share a fondness for those “Golden Mean” horizon pictures and classical subjects. But their color palette is very different, and Godward was much more into marble walls, exotic pelts, and women than Leighton.
His work is beautiful and it is easy to fall into the trap of over-analyzing some of his choices based on what we know of his personal life. I confess to feeling sorry for him and sensing an artificial limiting of expression in his art, but that is very likely my own imagination at work.
Yet, I cannot help but wonder. Of these two women with tambourines there is no doubt in my mind of which is superior. Godward never painted anything that was bad, but he did paint a good many pieces which might as well have been illustrations for postcards. Yet there was fire in him, just the same. It takes strength and determination to follow your dreams when everyone you love and respect is not only against you, but actively despises you for it. The Tambourine Girl is exquisite and beautiful, but it is the Dancing Girl who dares you with the artist’s eyes, who says in no uncertain terms, “This is who I am. Get over yourself and accept it.”
I wish I could tell you that Godward lived a long and happy life, but sadly, no. Oh, he lived long enough, I suppose, but in the end he remained his father’s son, snooty and disapproving. In a sort of ecstatic act of judgment he decided to punish the world by taking his own life. He declared he could not live in a world that had Picasso in it.
Seriously. That’s why he did it. In modern terms it would be like Michael Feinstein killing himself to chastise people for preferring the Beatles to Gershwin.
At least he had a sense of humor about it. Notice the image in the picture below what the girl has drawn on her pad, the simple elongated limbs and stature of the figurine she is trying to copy. This is a wink at the thin, elongated acrobats and minstrels from Picasso’s early work. His title for the work tells us all we need to know about his feelings for modern art.
Following his suicide Godward’s family ransacked his personal effects and destroyed all pictures of the artist which is why there are none to this day. Odd, considering how they felt about his embarrassing career, that they didn’t destroy any of his highly valuable art. Just goes to show that, in the end, even bankers can be moved by love for a dead relative’s assets.
It’s a wonderful world.