John William Godward belonged to the second generation of Victorian Aestheticist painters who followed in the footsteps of Frederic, Lord Leighton and Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema. A shy and reclusive artist whose family did not support his chosen career and destroyed many of his papers following is death, there is a dearth of information available to scholars regarding Godward’s life, why he selected his signature subject matter, and even his physical appearance. Regardless, he is still recognized as one of the late 19th century’s most important Neo-Classicists, a painter of incredible technical skill with an immediately recognizable aesthetic. Like Leighton, Godward believed that the creation of ideal beauty was the supreme goal of the artist and sought to create paintings with a simplified subject matter to emphasize their perfect balance of form and color.
While Godward’s work is often thought of as being generally inspired by the Classical Antiquity found in Leighton’s paintings, the present work is important evidence that Godward was both looking at and responding to Leighton’s paintings directly, and it is almost certainly the clearest such example of this in the artist’s oeuvre. Drawing its inspiration from Leighton’s Flaming June, painted in 1895 and exhibited publicly at the Royal Academy that same year (fig. 1), A Siesta was also painted in 1895 and clearly echoes the iconic pose found in Leighton’s late masterpiece. While Godward made some changes to the figure’s position, particularly in the placement of the arms and proper left leg, these make the pose more anatomically feasible than that found in Leighton’s work. While Leighton’s claim that Flaming June’s pose was inspired by a model who fell asleep in his studio has long-since been disproven by the work’s clear allusion to Michelangelo’s Night (fig. 2), the more natural position found in A Siesta suggests that Godward was more likely to have had his model before him as he was working on the picture.
Both artists regularly returned to the motif of single female figures in their work, and both A Siesta and Flaming June are wonderful examples of the artists attempting to capture what Christopher Newall has described as the ‘abstract evocation of mood in the form of a single female figure.’ Unlike Leighton’s painting, which has long been understood to carry associations of death and the femme fatale, A Siesta is more clearly a response to the recurring theme of the sleeping woman in Victorian art, which saw a number of artists explore the idea that dreams were the means through which the soul could achieve its truest expression. As a result, sleeping figures in Victorian painting carry a number of complex and multi-layered interpretations, including isolation, unbound sexual desire and elevation above the mundane experience of day-to day-life. Viewers are invited to imagine the figure’s dream, but the inability of the figure to rouse from sleeping leaves them suspended in an unresolvable twilight-state that summons ideas of death as well.
Though he was never recorded as a member of the Royal Academy, by reinterpreting a celebrated painting by the President of the Royal Academy in the same year it was painted, Godward demonstrated his supreme confidence in his own abilities as a painter. With characteristic mastery of texture, Godward transforms the work into a tour-de-force of his astonishing ability to render marble in painted form. By juxtaposing six different examples of stone in different colors and porphyry, Godward lays bare his technical virtuosity in this area. These cool stone elements are contrasted with the rich tiger skin and deeply colored brocade cushions on which his model reclines. Even when set against these brilliantly captured elements, however, it is clearly the figure’s luminous, diaphanous gown which is Godward’s central focus in A Siesta.
Just as Godward’s approach to the figure’s pose is more naturalistic than Leighton’s, so too is his rendering of the drapery in the figure’s costume. The beautifully sheer fabric falls naturally over the model’s body, pooling and cascading in a way which also suggests direct observation. The drapery in A Siesta is much more noticeably transparent than Leighton’s, which emphasizes the sensuously rendered contours of the sleeping model’s body. In spite of the change of setting found in Godward’s picture, the proportions of the figure within the canvas are almost a direct echo of Leighton’s, which grants the figure a similar monumentality of presence on the canvas, while the removal of more specific details of the setting focuses the viewer’s attention squarely on the painter’s technical skill.
Though the Aestheticist painters were disregarded for most of the 20th century for their unabashedly beautiful work, more recent scholarship has deepened our understanding of their mastery of color, form and line and their ability to capture the expressive potential of the human body. As Leighton himself said, ‘The only perfection of which we can have direct cognizance though the sense of sight is the perfection of forms and colors: therefore perfection of forms and colors – beauty, in a word – should be the prime objective of pictorial art’ (quoted in E. Prettejohn, Art for Art’s Sake, Aestheticism in Victorian Painting, New Haven, 2007, p. 148). In A Siesta, Godward proves himself the master indeed of beauty, and an artist on par with one of the most important artistic figures of his lifetime.