The Signal
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mmarcure's picture


John William Godward loved marble about as much as he loved women in fine gowns, and The Signal is the perfect example.

Just look at how delicately the pattern of color and light on the marble is treated. It’s like a summer breeze — warm, delicate, and enchanting. Then look at the detail on her gown. Not only is Godward able to convincingly convey the shape and weight of the cloth through its ripples upon ripples, he’s able to turn it into painted gauze. Light pours through her right sleeve sleepily, and the cloth thins from the waist down, showing the viewer the contours of her legs. Her outfit and hair is also interesting as it is a blur between Pompeian dress and idealized fashion. This mysterious woman’s look is definitely on point.

But who is she looking at? It’s unclear. There are no notes from Godward, as all of his writings were burned by his relatives (they never liked that he chose the life of a painter), so painterly intent is out the window. Art critics say that her yearning look combined with her youthful beauty suggest that she is waiting for a lover to return home. That’s a bit boring, however. Knowing Godward, who often painted nudes, there’s probably something lustful going on just beyond the frame that has caught the attention of the woman. Considering the setting, with the ocean just behind her, maybe there’s a nude beach where beach goers are calling her over to join in on the fun.

The quasi-historical setting also might provide interpretations. Godward was known for his obscure titling of paintings, with one painting being named after someone who is mentioned only once — I repeat, only once — in the entire historical record of the Roman empire. That’s like naming something after a footnote. So maybe The Signal is an oblique reference to the call of a siren. The woman certainly is beautiful in a way that recalls the epics of Homer. Yet it is important to keep in mind that nothing overtly fantastic or extraordinary is going on here.

Ultimately, the reading of The Signal is the viewer’s call. The woman, who looks away from the viewer, certainly isn’t going to give any hints.



  1. Swanson, Vern G. J.W. GODWARD 1861-1922: The Eclipse of Classicism. ACC Art Books, 1997.
  2. "John William Godward." Heritage Auctions. Accessed October 2018.
  3. Barrow, Rosemary. "Godward, John William (1861–1922), Genre Painter | Oxford Dictionary of National Biography." Accessed October 2018.