John William Godward was a painter of Classical genre scenes, associated with the 'Classical Revivalists' and Aesthetic Movement of the late Victorian era. He was mentored by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, arguably outstripping the latter's rendering of marbled surfaces and draped fabrics, whilst exploring the varying aesthetics of luscious female sexuality. Although he achieved success and acclaim, his career choice was never accepted by his family, to whom he became estranged. He was also plagued by criticisms of his subject matter and technique, especially with the arrival of modernism. Such persecutions led him to reject a membership invitation by the Royal Academy, and eventually to commit suicide at the age of 61. But the bleakness of his solitary life is never hinted at in his finished pictures, which depict a perfect world of happiness and sunshine set in Antiquity, but existing largely in the minds and imaginations of the artists and poets of late 19th century.
This study is unusual in its dark, intimate tones, with extraordinary sensitivity in capturing the girl's features and raw nature with clarity. It is of particular interest as an artist's study, created before he rendered the model immortal, in his larger paintings of the period. His usual subject matter being pretty girls, loosely veiled in Classical drapery against Mediterranean palatial settings, it is very rare to find any works portraying a subject in contemporary dress, excepting portraits of the artist's immediate family and occasional commissioned portraits.
The late 1880s was a time when Godward began working with models who were to define his female facial aesthetic up until his move to Italy in 1905. It was at this time that 'the famous Pettigrew sisters' were becoming his central focus, and despite the supposed title it is possible that 'Dora' represents a first study of such a figure. Painted in 1887, the model strongly resembles the eldest of the Pettigrew sisters, Hetty. The model appears as one of the two female sister figures in 'The Sweet Siesta of a Summer's Day' 1891 (Private Collection), considered the finest example of the artist's multiple figure compositions, many of which date from this period. 'A Classical Beauty in Profile' from c.1888 (Private Collection) shows most certainly this model from the left facing perspective.
Godward employed the 'famous Pettitgrew sisters' from about this time for numerous large works, feeling that they were better able to hold the strenuous poses he often demanded and that they were not reluctant to pose naked. The Pettigrews became the favourites of the Classical Revivalist painters of Victorian London, after their arrival from the Cornwall in 1884. They were first introduced by Millais, as models for his 'An Idyll of 1745', 1884. The sisters were later described in 'The Life and Letters of Sir J. E. Millais, 1899 II, p.165., as "more trouble than any (models) he ever had to deal with".
we are grateful to Vern G. Swanson, Phd for his help in preparing this catalogue entry.