Violets, sweet violets signed and dated 'J.W.Godward 1906' (lower left) oil on canvas 92 cm. (36 1/4 in.) diameter
Provenance: Richard Haworth, 25 Preston Road, Blackburn, private collection, sold to his gallery 28th February 1938; Mrs. M. E. Cocker, purchased from the above, 15th March 1939, thence by descent.
Literature: Listed in the Richard Haworth files. Vern G. Swanson, John William Godward, The Eclipse of Classicism, 1997, p. 251, no. 9, described as location unknown.
This previously unlocated work demonstrates Godwards genius as an artist. Considered the last of the Olympian painters, Violets, Sweet Violets shows how he could easily rival the best in this field. The paintings success relies upon a number of factors, not least upon its technical virtuosity, its subtle, yet alluring colours and emotional sensitivity. Furthermore the simplicity of composition allows the viewer to focus upon the contrasting beauty of the models soft skin, her diaphanous dress and exquisitely painted violets against the cool variegated marble. Violets, Sweet Violets is among one of the artists first works to show a single figure placed tight against a plain backdrop, and following on from Chloris of 1902 and Contemplation of 1903, is one of his earliest tondo or circular works. In this it compares in shape as well as size and composition with The Love Letter dated 1907, featuring the same Italianate beauty profiled to the right against a marble wall. However in terms of her pose and dress, closer comparisons can be made with The Tambourine Girl also completed in 1906. In both the model wears the same red and gold stola that featured in many other of Godwards works, including The Signal (1899, J. P. Getty Museum, California). Interestingly the present painting appears to be the only one in which the stola is damaged; showing glimpses of the pink dress beneath and painted with astonishing flare, the blemishes may possibly refer to the fallibility of love, faithfulness and modesty, as symbolised by the violets held delicately between the models fingers.
The choice of flower was no coincidence for one so immersed in portraying Graeco-Roman subjects since the history of violets goes back to Antiquity. The Romans placed emphasis on the plant and welcomed the arrival of spring by scattering violet petals and leaves in their banquet halls and by drinking violetum, a sweet wine. The ancient Greeks, who attributed the violet as the symbol of love and fertility used them in love potions. The violet was considered the flower of Zeus, the chief Olympian deity and according to legend derived its name from Io, one of his lovers. To protect Io from the jealous Hera, Zeus turned her into a heifer; then proceeding to feed her upon delicacies he commanded the earth to produce a beautiful flower in her honour, which he named Ion, the Greek word for viola. In addition to love, the violet also came to symbolise faithfulness and modesty as expressed by its appearance in Medieval missals and Gothic Psalter illustrations. They also appeared in Renaissance art, were referred to by Shakespeare and other writers but assumed a renewed popularity during the nineteenth century. A favourite of Napoleon, violets became a Bonaparte emblem. They also featured in a number of paintings including Manets portrait of Berthe Morisot, in works by Tissot and J. W. Waterhouse as well as on numerous Victorian valentines.
Violets, Sweet Violets was among one of Godwards earliest images to feature flowers in a dominant secondary role (the first being Summer Flowers of 1903). In 1902 Godward painted With Violets Wreathed and Robe of Saffron Hue and Ionian Dancing Girl, both portraying an Olympian model wearing a violet headdress. Here however the deep blue flowers take centre stage and are not only integral to the subject but also to the composition, cleverly offsetting the deeper tones of the models head and hair.
1905 witnessed the last of Godwards paintings to be exhibited at the London Royal Academy (Flabellifera, 1905). It is also believed that in the same year he travelled to Southern Italy, as witnessed by a number of studies of Capri, Pompeii and Naples. Although his style did not dramatically change, inevitably his tour would have inspired his imagination and may partly explain the evident sensitivity expressed in Violets, Sweet Violets and other subsequent works from this important period in his oeuvre. By 1906 he was most probably back in his London home and garden studio at 410 Fulham Road, which he filled with marble slabs and ancient artefacts to resemble a Roman villa.
Vern Swanson, Godwards biographer, was delighted to learn of the rediscovery of Violets, Sweet Violets for though it was listed in his scholarly work, it was only known from a list in the Richard Haworth Gallery files. Godward was most probably recommended to Richard Haworth (1864-1946) of Blackburn by his friend the London art dealer Thomas Miller McLean, who up until his death and retirement in 1908 handled many of the artists works. Known for his integrity and good eye as well as genial and philanthropic nature, Haworth was well respected among the art world. Between 1908 and 1946 he handled over one hundred of the artists paintings including Violets: Reverie (a study, 1908), in which the standing model, profiled to the left against a marble wall, gazes toward a bunch of violets in her hand. Information from the Haworth files reveals that after purchasing Violets, Sweet Violets in 1938 and its sale the following year, Haworth enjoyed it among his private collection. Shortly before WWII it was purchased by Mrs M. E. Cocker, and has remained in the family ever since. The original receipt notes that the work was sold in its original frame, and remains so today. Inevitably such factors as well as knowledge of the paintings provenance and original untouched condition not only enhance interest but also value to a painting, which is considered among one of the artists finest works.