Reprinted below is an extract from the opening chapter of Dr Vern Swanson's landmark biography of the artist: John William Godward: The Eclipse of Classicism. The above link will take you to the entire text of the book, illustrated online from works in the ARC Museum.
The serene beauty and astonishing technical execution of John William Godward's paintings contradict the fact that this important artist has received virtually no critical acclaim or art historical recognition. We know little about this artist's private life, which is not betrayed by his art. Melancholy, kindly, reclusive, handsome, talented and shy, J. W. Godward's life is still a mystery, a censored book, protected by himself and sealed by his family. Unlike most Olympian Classicists before him, he preferred anonymity and privacy.
Ignored by the quickly changing tastes of the art critics, Godward became the climatic figure of English classical-subject painting as this genre itself shriveled under the blaze of the 20th century avant-garde. He was the best of the last great European painters to straight-forwardly embrace classical Greece and Rome in their art. Herein lies his significance to art history. With him and his colleagues, we see the nightfall of five hundred years of Classical subject painting in Western art.
Desperately idealistic, Godward was one of those artists, who at first glance, we think we fathom completely. Since he is often dismissed with the inadequate catch phrases: an Alma-Tadema clone, a "too late" Classicist, a "pedant of the brush", a "pot-boiler" or merely the painter of an insipid world of languorous women on marble benches, no serious study of his art has been undertaken. And because we are a society that honors "firsts" rather than "lasts" few art historians have examined the demise of Classical subject-painting, of which Godward is a chief exemplar. All of these judgements, in the light of historical distance, can be seen as unjust prejudices.
In Godward's work we see the final summation of half a millennium of Classical antique influence on Western painting. Next to Christianity it was by far the greatest outside influence on European painting. It vanished during Godward's generation -- killed, as it were, by contemporary nihilistic philosophies. While pointed references to Classicism continued, even unto today, the idealistic rhetoric accompanying it has died. During a period of rapidly declining interest in Greco-Roman antiquity courageous artists from the 19th century continued, against all odds, in this field for the first third of the 20th century ...
Art Renewal Center Articles about John William Godward
J.W. Godward: the Eclipse of Classicism
Godward and the Death of Greco-Roman Painting