Frederick Goodall, 1822-1904
Signed lower left: “GF [monogram] 1867”
Oil on canvas
76 x 55,2 cm (30 x 21 ¾ inches)
The Crowther-Oblak Collection of Victorian Art
Source: Awakening Beauty, no. 35
Provenance: bought as Lot 30 − Study of a Grecian woman fetching water from the well, a mountainous landscape in the distance (by an unidentified artist), High Road Auction, London, 5th November 2013.
See commentary below
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Commentary by Paul Crowther
The work was subsequently identified as a smaller version of the painting Rachel by Frederick Goodall exhibited as no. 469 at the Royal Academy in 1867. (This is now in the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia.) Another smaller version of Rachel – with Goodall’s authorship acknowledged – was sold as Lot 50 by Bruun Rasmussen in Copenhagen, 26th February 2013, under the title Young Oriental Woman with a Water Jar. A watercolour version entitled Returning from the Well with Goodall’s authorship acknowledged was sold at Sotheby’s, 11th December 2003. Goodall like many other Victorian artists, often did replica versions of successful works – a practice that aroused some controversy at the time. [The practice is discussed in Gillett and Sutton, 49–51.]
Rachel is an Old Testament figure. In Genesis, chapter 29, Jacob travels eastward and encounters people who he finds are related to him. They are waiting by a well until all their animals have been gathered for watering. Jacob sees Rachel bringing her father’s flock of sheep, and the sight of her affects him profoundly. He single-handedly moves the stone that allows access to the well, kisses Rachel, and then calls out, and weeps. The implication is that Jacob is not only experiencing love at first sight, but also an intuition of his and Rachel’s complicated future life together – full of tribulations as well as joys. Jacob’s and Rachel’s first encounter is a familiar theme in western art. The Victorian artist William Dyce, for example, did a beautiful rendition of it as The Meeting of Jacob and Rachel (no. 92 in the Royal Academy Exhibition of 1850, now in a private collection). However, Goodall’s treatment of the theme seems to focus on Rachel herself, rather than her immediate place in the Jacob narrative (a point that will be returned to).
In a review of Goodall’s 1867 Royal Academy picture, the Athenaeum of May 4th 1867 journal observes that the painting of Rachel ‘shows her descending the steps of a built well, a jar upon her shoulder; the figure displayed by a gleam of light that goes across it. The composition of the crossed arms is very happy’ (594). The present work is smaller than the R.A. exhibit, but has the same basic composition. However, there is one interesting stylistic variation that is not found in the R.A. work nor, indeed, in the other replica version, nor in the watercolour. For whilst, in all versions of the picture, Rachel is highlighted on her right side by a gleam of light, in the Crowther/Oblak picture the lighting is emphasized by enhanced chiaroscuro. The lack of this extension in the other versions means that they work aesthetically mainly at the level of intensifying shadow, and balancing colours, that is, in decorative terms.
The significance of this is in terms of Rachel’s idealized beauty and spiritual character. However, before considering this in more detail, it is necessary to make some general remarks about Ideal Beauty. This is no longer a fashionable notion, but it is easy to overlook the possibility of it having an enduring aesthetic significance. True, in much European academic art it often reduces to no more than highly generalized forms that avoid the over-specific in terms of colour, contour, and detail. However, the best work in this tradition goes far beyond this formulaic practice. It has an ideal beauty based on the emphasis of what might be called geometrical immanence. This is a feature of visual art where idealized forms serve to emphasize the corporeal embodiment of three-dimensional geometric structures (usually in combination, or even irregularly varied). The structures in question are spheres, cones, pyramids, cubes, cylinders, ovoids, rectangular and triangular prisms, and also the faces, edges, vertices, and partial segments of such forms. Structures of this kind are constant features in perception. They allow us to recognize appearances as appearances of the same object, and they also allow us to recognize the kind of object involved. Put in more ontological terms, geometric structure sustains the identity of the particular qua particular, and its identity as a particular of such and such a kind.
Forms that declare these structures are metaphysically as well as epistemologically fundamental. We can only describe a thing as existing insofar as it occupies space, and geometric structures are the basic features that give order to the fabric of spatial appearance (in the ways just described). Indeed, our existence as creatures with bodies that move and operate in space centres on the direct negotiation of the geometric structures just described. This negotiation gives them a familiarity and intimacy that is not available when they are studied as geometry per se.
Ideal art, then, works by expressing the aforementioned structures in aesthetic terms. This is the great principle of beauty that operates in much Victorian classicist art notably the works of Lord Leighton and Edward Poynter. Goodall’s Rachel is also an especially fine example of this. In all the versions of it, the positioning of Rachel’s arms sets up a fine balance between immanent perpendicular cylinders and cones, and similar structures disposed obliquely to the viewer. The verticality of her right arm in turn balances and ‘rectifies’ a very slight rightwards inclination in the axis of her vertical posture. In the Crowther/Oblak version of the picture, the extended gleam of light animates these structures and relations. It enhances our sense of them as the skeleton of corporeality, by means of a dialectical poetic. A beam of light is a passing phenomenon, the seeming opposite of the immanent ‘timelessness’ of enduring geometric ‘constants’. However, in lived experience, these factors are reconciled and complement one another. Our perception and self-consciousness constellate around the interaction between transient appearances and the enduring immanent geometric structures that allow them to be recognized as appearances of this particular object and/or of an object of a specific kind. Goodall’s composition clarifies this – not as a didactic visual exercise – but through the interesting way it is composed.
And, it should be emphasized that this is more than just a pleasure in form. As noted earlier, Goodall does not overtly present Rachel’s role in the meeting with Jacob. Rather, she is shown as Rachel-the-physical-woman whose physicality involves more than being an object for the male gaze. The composition expresses and clarifies key aspects of how any human – qua space-occupying being with the capacity to move − engages with the world as a physical subject. This involves a special emphasis on how geometrical structure is corporeally embodied. The robustness of this emphasis in Rachel’s appearance allows her to be shown as a spiritually resolute and dutiful person. Her facial expression is wholly inseparable from her overall dignity of bearing – a dignity grounded in the geometric strength of her posture and the act of carrying the pitcher.
Through Goodall’s composition, then, spiritual and sensuous aspects of our embodied existence are brought into a heightened and reciprocally rewarding visual interaction. He achieves authentic Ideal Beauty.
Crowther, Paul. Awakening Beauty: The Crowther-Oblak Collection of Victorian Art. Exhibition catalogue. Ljubljana: National Gallery of Slovenia; Galway: Moore Institute, National University of Ireland, 2014.
Gillett, Paula, and Alan Sutton. The Victorian Painter’s World. Gloucester, 1990.
Last modified 26 November 2014