The artist Gwen John is often seen as an eccentric recluse. A new exhibition of her work at the Holburne Museum – the first in 20 years – aims to dispel this myth, tracing her work over her 40-year career. Eleanor Hutchison, Assistant Curator at the Holburne, gives us some insight into the show.
Opening at the Holburne Museum this autumn, Gwen John: Art and Life in London and Paris is the first retrospective of the Welsh artist Gwen John (1876–1939) in 20 years. Showcasing paintings, watercolours and drawings from across John’s career, the exhibition dispels the long-held belief that she was an eccentric recluse, working in isolation from the avant-garde art scenes of the early 20th century. Instead, her work will be placed in the context of the two cities in which she lived and worked, London and Paris. Previously displayed at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, the exhibition at the Holburne will also feature a significant number of John’s small works on paper, many from private collections and rarely seen in public.
Born in the Welsh coastal town of Tenby in 1876, Gwen John was one of four children, and the elder sister of Augustus, whose art has previously overshadowed that of his sister. At the age of 19 John moved to London and in 1895 enrolled at The Slade School of Fine Art. The Slade was one of the few art schools of the time that allowed women to attend, including in the life drawing classes. This made John a part of the first generation of women to receive formal art training, along with fellow students including Ida Nettleship and Ursula Tyrwhitt.
John first travelled to Paris in 1898 with two friends from The Slade to study at James McNeill Whistler’s Académie Carmen. John’s affinity for the city saw her moving there permanently in 1904 and on the suggestion of her brother, John approached the sculptor, Auguste Rodin with the offer to be his life model. This relationship evolved into an intense love affair which continued over ten years. Drawings and a plaster bust by Rodin will be on display in the exhibition where the impersonal nature of the nude sitters in his drawings will be contrasted with the highly personal, lifelike paintings Gwen John made of her beloved cat, Edgar Quinet. The end of her affair with Rodin coincided with a transformative period in John’s career. Her canvases became rougher and her application of paint became more sparing and applied with more visible brush strokes, creating a flat chalkiness to her compositions. John used a ground made from mixing chalk and animal glue; by mixing chalk with warm glue, little bubbles appear in the surface that are visible through the paint layers.
It was also during this period of experimentation that John began to focus exclusively on depicting female sitters. She had moved to Meudon on the outskirts of Paris in 1911 and it is here she would have her sitters pose for her. John would often work on paintings over long periods of time and revisit the same subjects repeatedly. This frequent repetition is explored in the exhibition, with multiple versions of the same subject displayed together so the subtle differences between them can be observed.
It was during this time of artistic evolution that John converted to Roman Catholicism. She absorbed influences from Renaissance paintings and incorporated them into her own work. A Lady Reading, an oil on canvas on loan from the Tate shows how John took the facial features of the Madonna from a print by the German artist, Albrecht Dürer. She then places the woman in a distinctly modern Parisian interior, the style of which was typical during the early 20th century. John also made portraits of religious figures and members of her local congregation. Her six known paintings of the founder of the Dominican Order of the Sisters of Charity,
Mère Poussepin, four of which are on display in the exhibition, are considered some of her greatest works. She based this likeness on a small black and white, cheaply printed prayer card, and yet the sitter is imbibed with a vitality and individuality that surpasses the image John was working from. She also persisted with the habit of sketching members of the congregation even after the preacher told her it was sinful to be drawing instead of paying attention to the sermon. John would make these sketches in situ and later work them up in her studio. One of these works, Two Ladies in Church, on loan from a private collection, shows an unusual fluidity in her application of watercolour, and yet the subject is typical of John’s church scenes, with the figures depicted from a distance and facing away from us. The impression we get from these works is of John subtly observing and capturing these people in quiet moments of contemplation.
This religious fervour and a desire for independence and solitude after the end of her relationship with Rodin likely contributed to the perception of her as a reclusive character. This perception may have also been encouraged by John’s interest in depicting interior scenes, as if this focus implies she was confined to these spaces. Yet this fascination with interiors was not limited to Gwen John’s art, many of her contemporaries were drawn to capture these private spaces. Works by artists such as Pierre Bonnard and Vilhelm Hammershøi are on display in the exhibition alongside John’s, demonstrating how progressive her work really was. The reality was that she was a radically modern woman, well-connected in the art and social scenes of both London and Paris. Her brother predicted that in “fifty years’ time I’ll be known as the brother of Gwen John”. This exhibition seeks to redress her significance.
Gwen John: Art and Life in London and Paris is on from 21 October – 14 April 2024 at the Holburne Museum. Exhibition curated by Dr Alicia Foster, in partnership with Pallant House Gallery, Chichester and the Holburne Museum. holburne.org