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October 2023

Vol. 165 / No. 1447

Gwen John: Art and Life in London and Paris

Reviewed by Helena Anderson

Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, 13th May–8th October 


With the recent trend to ‘discover’ women artists who have been previously overlooked and underappreciated in the history of art, many are finally getting the recognition they deserve. However, we are not the first generation to undertake this task, and some artists being ‘rediscovered’ have in fact never been lost. What then, if anything, can be learnt about such artists as Gwen John (1876–1939), who was brought to the fore during the first wave of feminist art history in the 1970s and 1980s? John is well-represented in national and international collections; a catalogue raisonné has been published of her oil paintings; and her work has featured in major exhibitions and publications.[1] Alicia Foster’s answer is to remove her from the scholarly silos into which she has been funnelled. The persistent view of John as a solitary artist – impoverished, obsessive and working in total isolation from the modernist art movements happening around her – is challenged in this exhibition and accompanying critical biography.[2] 

Foster takes aim at the irresistibly seductive myth of the reclusive, pious Welsh woman who spent her adult life in Parisian attics by situating the artist in the transnational networks within which she operated. Far beyond being the sister of Augustus John (1878–1961) and the model and lover of Auguste Rodin (1840–1917), John had a vast array of friends, acquaintances, colleagues, collectors and correspondents. She was intellectually curious, a voracious reader and an active participant in contemporary artistic debates. Although many of these connections have been noted previously, Foster follows the lines of enquiry further than ever before, and this exhibition provides visual proof of her research.It opens with a reproduction of an assured self-portrait (c.1899; National Portrait Gallery, London), which is unfortunately too fragile to travel, three early drawings from her time at the Slade School of Art, London, and two of her later cool, close- toned oil paintings of solitary figures (Fig.18). From the outset, then, we are shown the duality of John’s persona and her work: connectedness and confidence contrasted with stillness and interiority. 
From here, the exhibition swiftly moves through a chronological survey of her work, organised around themes that mirror the chapters of Foster’s book. The first room explores John’s time at the Slade in the 1890s, her journey across the south of France with Dorelia McNeill (1881–1969) and early influences, such as James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834–1903) and Ambrose McEvoy (1887–1927). Foster’s intelligent curation makes up for gaps in the art-historical record: although the Slade was the first art school to allow women into the life studio, none of John’s figure studies from this time survive. However, works by her contemporaries and friends Ida Nettleship (1877–1907), Edna Waugh (1879–1979) and Elinor Monsell (1879–1954) stand in for them. John’s well-known group portrait of friends crowded into a room of a lodging house at 21 Fitzroy Street, London (c.1897–98; UCL Art Collection, London), is exhibited upright in a vitrine, with paintings by those depicted on the wall behind. In particular, Foster establishes that John was not just learning from her contemporaries as previously thought, but also teaching and influencing them. 
John’s life in Paris from 1904 to 1913 is the theme of the second room, in which her work is shown alongside such artists as Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864–1916), Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824–98) and Édouard Vuillard (1868–1940). Foster argues that rather than working in isolation, John was aware of and engaging with contemporary artistic debates, such as the modern interior, spirituality and the female body. The selections are well made and create striking visual comparisons, for example the juxtaposition of Vuillard’s Modèle assise dans un fauteuil, se coiffant (Model seated in a chair, combing her hair; Fig.17) and John’s Woman dressing (Fig.16). A cosmopolitan array of friends and acquaintances are also highlighted, from Mary Constance Lloyd (1884–1974) to Hilda Flodin (1877–1958). The inclusion of Paula Modersohn-Becker’s Nude with a mirror (Self-portrait) (1906; Leicester Museums and Galleries) with John’s Self-portrait, nude (c.1909; private collection) is particularly striking, although it is not known if the two women ever met. Most intriguing, however, is a wall of pencil and watercolour wash drawings: five nudes by Rodin and three cats by John. Foster asserts that John’s choice of model had more to do with gender and class than an obsession with cats: as a woman living alone, unable to afford a model, she instead used her pet to explore form and movement. Framed in this way, John’s work appears just as experimental as Rodin’s, although necessarily different. 

The third room considers the First World War and its aftermath. Foster posits that John’s colour palette became more sombre during the war, and suggests her series of ten paintings now known collectively as The convalescent was a metaphor for post-conflict France. However, this is difficult to confirm given the great uncertainty regarding the dates of John’s oil paintings.[3] After the war she began exhibiting her work in the Salons in Paris. This is briefly acknowledged in the exhibition by the inclusion of drawings of Breton children, which are similar to works she exhibited there. The room also contains a drawing of a boy’s head by Paul Cezanne (1881–82; private collection) for comparison. Also touched upon here is John’s interest in literature, which is demonstrated through the inclusion of two of her books, loaned from the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth. 

The final room, by far the largest, contains an even greater mix of themes: religion, the artist’s penchant for repetition, the landscape, night scenes and her work on paper. Here we find the greatest concentration of work by John in the exhibition. The series of nuns that she painted for the Dominican Sisters of the Presentation in Meudon in the 1910s command the room, the subjects staring out at the viewer. Her drawings when grouped together, as the artist herself preferred, also have a significant wall presence.[4] 

Although the exhibition may be smaller than expected, no doubt due to difficulty obtaining some loans, there is still much to see and consider.[5] The comparisons with fellow artists expand our understanding of the context within which John was practising, and in most cases her work emerges favourably. More archival material and works on paper would, however, have been welcome. The text panels and object labels provide a comprehensive overview, but for those seeking further explanation, Foster’s extensively illustrated, erudite and readable book will be helpful. Conversely, whereas the book can at times feel like an inventory of well- known modernists, the exhibition presents a more streamlined selection. The entrance section confusingly mixes early works with late ones, and the large reproduction of a photograph of the artist posing nude is shown without context alongside the paintings of nuns. These may simply be accommodations to the space. Overall, both the book and the exhibition present a new critical context for examining John’s œuvre. By tracing the artist’s connections to the modernist revolution happening around her, it makes her role within it clearer. Foster’s research offers an important lesson to those currently re-evaluating the role women have played in art and its history: no one acts in complete isolation. 

 [1] Gwen John’s work can be found in most public collections in the United Kingdom, including significant holdings at the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff, the National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh, and Tate as well as in international collections, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven. See also D.F. Jenkins, ed.: exh. cat. Gwen John and Augustus John, London (Tate Britain) 2004; C. Lloyd-Morgan, ed.: Gwen John: Letters and Notebooks, London 2004; and C. Langdale: Gwen John: With a Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings and a Selection of the Drawings, New Haven and London 1987. 

[2] Accompanying publication: Gwen John: Art and Life in Paris and London. By Alicia Foster. 272 pp. incl. 122 col. ills. (Thames and Hudson, London and New York, 2023), £30. ISBN 978–0–500–02557–4. The exhibition will travel to the Holburne Museum, Bath (21st October 2023–14th April 2024). 

[3] The foreword to the catalogue raisonné cites this series as causing problems for a chronological arrangement of John’s paintings as they were completed over a number of years from the late 1910s to at least the mid- 1920s. See Langdale, op. cit. (note 1), 

[4] Letter from Gwen John to Ursula Tyrwhitt, 6th September [postmark 6th October 1918], in Lloyd-Morgan, op. cit. (note 1), p.106. 

[5] For example, the recentre hang of Tate’s permanent collection at Tate Britain, London, meant that some of its works could not be loaned. Similarly, the manuscript collection in the National Library of Wales relating to John is mostly bound into archival volumes, meaning that the display of individual objects was not feasible. Conversely, there are many rarely seen works from private collections on view.