“I cannot imagine why my vision will have some value in the world – and yet I know it will.” – Gwen John
A new Sussex exhibition, Gwen John: Art and Life in London and Paris, throws new light on her as an artist and overturns some previous ideas about her life and art. It’s one of the most exciting exhibitions I have seen in recent years.
For years Gwen has often been portrayed as a recluse, overshadowed by her famous brother Augustus. But thanks to the brilliant work of curator Alicia Foster, the exhibition, at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, reveals a brave, independent woman who forged a new life and strong reputation in Paris and London at the turn of the 20th century.
Born in Wales in 1876, Gwen trained with Augustus at the Slade School of Fine Art – one of the few in the 1890s to permit women to do life drawing. Inspired by tutor Henry Tonks, who emphasised the importance of vigorous lines, her life drawings were admired and emulated by other students.
Examples of her early work are displayed alongside other students, such as Elinor Monsell and Edna Clarke Hall. I really appreciated seeing the work of these little-known women artists, most of whom, unsurprisingly for the time, gave up painting when they married. Gwen John herself started to develop an interest in painting the female figure in interior scenes, which was a key theme of her later work.
John became a close friend of another student, Ida Nettleship. Together with Ida – who later married Augustus – she travelled to Paris in 1898. This first visit, in her early 20s, was highly adventurous for a young woman at that time and the start of a life-long love of the city.
They trained with the celebrated artist James McNeill Whistler, a key influence on John’s later work, and would also have met the artist Walter Sickert.
Life in Paris
John returned to Paris in 1903 after travelling through France with another friend, Dorothy ‘Dorelia’ McNeill, an intrepid journey where they survived by selling their sketches.
Her exquisite chalk sketches of Dorelia are shown here, as well as a striking full-length portrait where you can almost feel the rustle of the black silk dress. It is shown alongside Augustus’s own sensual portrait of Dorelia – who later became his lover and muse – and makes for an interesting contrast.
Dorelia returned to London to form an unconventional ménage à trois with Augustus and Ida, while Gwen also broke convention by becoming an artist’s model and living independently in Paris – “I want to flourish,” she told her brother. She became the lover of the sculptor Rodin – usually the one fact people know about her.
John sent examples of her paintings to London where one critic admired her interior scenes for “capturing the colour that ordinary life wears.” A few well-chosen objects – a wicker chair, table, a parasol and shawl – indicate simple tastes, with a life in the city beyond the window.
John also sketched and painted many beautifully executed portraits of herself and other women, sometimes naked. These are direct and intimate, but not voyeuristic. John’s confidence and determination shine through the self-portraits and they helped establish her growing reputation.
Her new patron, leading art collector John Quinn, wrote of one of her portraits: “I think it is finer than anything of that kind that Whistler ever did.” In the early 1920s, her work was so well-known in Paris that “the Salons would take anything she sent them”, and a dealer told her to “name her price” for a picture.
In later life, John moved to Meudon outside Paris and painted evocative landscapes and local flora. Having converted to Catholicism, she did a series of portraits of church congregations and a neighbouring order of nuns. These are not pious or conventionally religious, but convey a human and often humorous element. For instance, a picture of one nun in serious mood is shown alongside a sketch of the same woman which captures a mischievous expression.
John continued to experiment in her paintings, mixing chalk into her paint to create texture; Foster comments that the “unfinished”, sometimes patchy look was intentional.
This is a stunning exhibition which deserves wide acclaim and several visits to appreciate in full. On my visit, Pallant House was busy but not too crowded, making it a pleasant experience compared to some London art galleries, and refreshingly without viewers constantly taking photographs of the paintings.
Non-reflective glass enables you to get up quite close to the pictures to look at the brush strokes. The imaginative hanging, comparative artworks and illuminating commentary by curator Alicia Foster all enhance the experience. Pallant House has certainly reinforced its already strong reputation for presenting ground-breaking art.
Do go and see it!
Gwen John: Art and Life in London and Paris is at Pallant House Gallery from 13 May – 8 October 2023. All images are reproduced with kind permission of Pallant House and quotes are from Alicia Foster’s exhibition guide.