The Portraiture of Gwen John

Gwen John, Young Woman in a Grey Cloak, c. 1920–24. Oil on canvas

Gwen John, Young Woman in a Grey Cloak, c. 1920–24. Oil on canvas, 64.6 x 46 cm. Gift of the Massey Collection of English Painting, 1948.National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC


At first glance, Gwen John’s painting Young Woman in a Grey Cloak (c. 1920–24) may appear to be an unassuming and conventional portrait: the subject sits quietly, hands in her lap, her gaze focused on something (or someone) beyond the frame. Known simply as “the convalescent model” and possibly a neighbour, the sitter appeared in nearly fifty of John’s paintings in the 1910s and 1920s. This particular depiction, however, which was acquired by the National Gallery of Canada in 1948, marks a unique moment in the evolution of the Welsh artist’s career, which has undergone a major reappraisal over the past decade.

Born in 1876 in Haverfordwest, Wales, Gwendolen Mary John and her siblings were encouraged by their solicitor father and watercolourist mother to explore literature and art from a young age. In her formative years, John studied at the Slade School of Art – the only art school in London to accept women students at the time – and under reputable artists such as James McNeil Whistler at his académie in Paris.

Gwen John, Self-portrait, c.1900. Oil on canvas

Gwen John, Self-portrait,  c.1900. Oil on canvas, 61 x 37.8 cm. © National Portrait Gallery, London

By 1904, she had moved to Paris, where she would live for most of her life, networking with artists such as Picasso and Matisse, and finding inspiration in Impressionist and Post-impressionist techniques such as intimism and an emphasis on geometric forms. Sister to the prominent painter Augustus John and a lover of the famous French sculptor Auguste Rodin, John’s career was set within the shadow of their artistic achievements. Until recent scholarship suggested otherwise, she was presented as having spent much of her career as a recluse, often working in solitude.

In 1910, John moved to Meudon, on the outskirts of Paris, and three years later converted to Catholicism. Recognizing her talent, the Dominican Sisters of Charity at Meudon commissioned the artist to paint a series of portraits of the order's nuns. Unlike her earlier landscapes and interiors – which often incorporated thin glazes of colour in a traditional manner – these portraits favoured subtle details, quiet compositions and thick applications of refined tones. “Gwen reduced the number and range of formal elements, limiting her colours and values to a point where objects appear to be viewed through a soft veil,” wrote Rotraud Sackerlotzky in 1988 in The Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art.  In her later years, John painted dozens of these muted portraits and, with a perfectionist approach, often revisited the same subject time and time again.

When John painted Young Woman in a Grey Cloak in the early 1920s, the artist – who was reticent to exhibit – was fresh on the heels of her first exhibition in Paris, at the Salon d’Automne. Although many elements of her Meudon portraits are present in this composition, one particular feature sets this oil painting apart: she opted for a larger canvas. She produced three other versions of this work – now in the collections of the Yale Centre for British Art, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery and the National Galleries of Scotland – all in this larger size. Young Woman in a Grey Cloak marks a high point in John’s impressive portfolio of female portraits and a curious departure from her small-scale works.

Gwen John, Self-portrait?, c.1900. Pen and brown ink over graphite on laid paper,

Gwen John, Self-portrait?, c.1900. Pen and brown ink over graphite on laid paper, 22.8 x 18.1 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC

The Gallery has only one other work by John in its collection. A drawing from around 1900, the work is a suspected self-portrait, depicting John in what would have been her early twenties. John completed thousands of drawings over the course of her career, many portraying a similar commitment to form and facial expressions as her paintings. On John’s artistic style and execution, author Richard Shone wrote in 1976, “Absolute trust in form, colour and line is the beginning and end of her success.” At this time, John also painted a now-famous self-portrait, praised for its likeness to the work of accomplished Baroque artists such as Rembrandt van Rijn and Anthony van Dyck. This richly painted oil on canvas is now in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery in London (see above).

John’s last known work dates from 1933, and a mere six years later, she would die in Dieppe. Although she never attained a notable level of recognition or success while alive, she has since been recognized as a significant contributor to the development of female portraiture and the British Post-impressionist style. Her works live on in numerous collections around the world.

 

Young Woman in a Grey Cloak by Gwen John (c. 1920–24) is on view in room C219 at the National Gallery of Canada. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.

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