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Gwen John

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Gwen John

by Gwen John
oil on canvas, circa 1900
24 in. x 14 7/8 in. (610 mm x 378 mm)
Given by the Art Fund to mark Sir Alec Martin's 40 years service to the fund, 1965
Primary Collection
NPG 4439

On display in Room 28 at the National Portrait Gallery

Sitterback to top

Artistback to top

This portraitback to top

This self-portrait was painted when Gwen John was at the beginning of her artistic career. She had followed her brother Augustus to the Slade School of Art in London, where she studied from 1895 to 1898, winning a prize for figure composition. On leaving she worked briefly in Paris with Whistler and returned to London in 1899, where she began to exhibit her work and where this portrait appears to have been painted. It is one of two self-portraits from this period: the other is in the Tate Gallery, and presents a somewhat wistful characterisation of the artist, whereas here the jutting hand on hip and a stance which seems deliberately to burst the bounds of the picture frame, allied to an expression of watchful superiority, indicate a much more confident view of herself.

Linked publicationsback to top

  • 100 Portraits, p. 92
  • Audio Guide
  • Smartify image discovery app
  • Victorian Portraits Resource Pack, p. 39
  • Cooper, John, A Guide to the National Portrait Gallery, 2009, p. 45 Read entry

    More assertive than later self-images, its restricted yet subtle tonal range is evidence of the talent that led her brother Augustus to value her work above his own.

  • Cooper, John, Visitor's Guide, 2000, p. 86
  • Funnell, Peter, Victorian Portraits in the National Portrait Gallery Collection, 1996, p. 39
  • Gibson, Robin, Painting The Century: 101 Portrait Masterpieces 1900-2000, 2000 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 26 October 2000 to 4 February 2001), p. 38
  • John Cooper, National Portrait Gallery Visitor's Guide, 2006, p. 86 Read entry

    Painted when she was about twenty-four years old, this is the most assertive and confident of Gwen John’s self-portraits. The hand on hip, exuberant bow and high, full position within the picture frame contribute to this. The artist’s expression is one of watchful superiority. The restricted, yet subtle, tonal range is a demonstration of the sort of skill that led her brother, the painter Augustus John, to value her work above his own.

  • Ribeiro, Aileen, The Gallery of Fashion, 2000, p. 200
  • Ribeiro, Aileen; Blackman, Cally, A Portrait of Fashion: Six Centuries of Dress at the National Portrait Gallery, 2015, p. 207
  • Rideal, Liz, Mirror Mirror: Self-portraits by Women Artists, 2001 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 12 September 2001 to 20 January 2002), p. 49 Read entry

    Gwen John and her brother Augustus (1878-1961) grew up in Tenby, Wales, and trained together at the Slade School of Fine Art from 1895 to 1898. Gwen left the Slade, having won a prize for figure composition, and studied briefly at James Abbott McNeil Whistler's Academic Carmen in Paris from 1898 to 1899. Whistler (1834-1903) admired her sense of tone; her brother said that she was the 'greatest woman artist of her age' and that 'Fifty years after my death I shall be remembered as Gwen John's brother.' (Quoted in M. Holroyd, Augustus John: The New Biography, 1996.)

    Gwen returned to London in 1900, when she exhibited with the New English Art Club, and later showed with her brother at Carfax and Co. Galleries. In 1904 she moved to France permanently and became involved with the sculptor Auguste Rodin, to whom she wrote 2,000 love letters and who introduced her to the leading figures of the avant-garde. In 1911 she moved to Meudon, a Paris suburb, and from then on lived and worked alone.

    The American collector John Quinn was her only patron. He eventually owned at least eighteen of her paintings and fifty drawings and he included her painting Girl Reading at the Window (1911; now in the Museum of Modern Art, New York) in the Armory Show, America's first 'modern art' exhibition, in New York in 1913. That same year Gwen became a Catholic and painted works for the Convent of the Sisters of Charity at Meudon, including portraits of the nuns. She remained in France during World War I, spending most of the summers of 1915 to 1922 in Brittany. In 1922 she exhibited at the Salon d'Automne in Paris and in the Modern English Artists show at the Sculptors' Gallery, New York. Her only solo exhibition during her life was at the New Chenil Galleries in London in 1926. During the 1930s she painted less, living an increasingly solitary life, and died in Dieppe on 1 September 1939.

    This self-assured self-portrait shows the 24-year-old artist in a confident, confrontational pose, hand on hip, looking straight out at us and boldly filling the entire space of the canvas. Colours and tonal values are subtle, oil paint gently dabbed onto the canvas with delicate obsessive precision, carefully rendering the folds and pleats of the bow around her neck and her russet blouse. The shape of her splayed hand echoes the 'puff' of the form of her gigot sleeve and brings to mind 'old master' self-portraits. There exists a similar though slightly later half-length self-portrait in the collection of the Tate; of the two this seems more imperious, but in both Gwen John suggests a very distinctive and refined personal quality of her own.

  • Rideal, Liz, Insights: Self-portraits, 2005, p. 101 Read entry

    Using the whole body to fill a canvas is an effective way of suggesting strength of character. Gwen John was fiercely independent, with passions for art, people and religion. The strong composition of this self-portrait acts as a visual counterpoint to the delicate, chalky paint surface and muted palette. Meticulous in her colour selections and technique, she consistently refined her process of paint application over the years. John’s work has been described as having a ‘private incandescence of spirit’. She studied at the Slade, and in Paris from 1898 to 1900, with Whistler, who famously declared that she had a ‘fine sense of tone’. Living in France from 1903, she as Rodin’s muse and lover, and also friend to Rainer Maria Rilke, his biographer and secretary.

  • Saumarez Smith, Charles, The National Portrait Gallery: An Illustrated Guide, 2000, p. 170
  • Saumarez Smith, Charles, The National Portrait Gallery, 1997, p. 170 Read entry

    Gwen John painted herself looking reserved, confident and self-possessed, either while she was still a student at the Académie Carmen in Paris in late 1898 or following her return to London in 1899, before she settled permanently in Paris. With her hands on her hips and a big black bow round her neck, she returns the spectator's gaze with an air suggestive both of a lack of real interest and a slight air of challenge, which holds one's attention as one tries to puzzle out the conflicting clues to her character. Gwen John was then in her early twenties, but this is a great work of art, demonstrating how much she had learned both at the Slade under Henry Tonks and at the Académie Carmen. It is hard to square with her own description of herself at this period when 'shyness and timidity distort the very meaning of my words in people's ears. That I think is one reason why I am such a waif.'

  • Schama, Simon, The Face of Britain: The Nation Through its Portraits, 2015-09-15, p. 336
  • Schama, Simon, The Face of Britain: The Nation Through its Portraits, 2015-09-15, p. 406
  • Various contributors, National Portrait Gallery: A Portrait of Britain, 2014, p. 178 Read entry

    Gwen John’s commanding gaze in this portrait, one of two early self-portraits, reflects the passionate determination with which she forged her artistic career. She studied at the Slade School of Fine Art, with her brother Augustus, and at James McNeill Whistler’s Académie Carmen in Paris. In London, she exhibited at the New English Art Club. In 1904 she moved to France, where she stayed for the rest of her life. Initially, she earned a meagre living as an artists’ model in Paris before becoming established as an artist. Most notably, she modelled for Auguste Rodin, with whom she began a passionate relationship. She stayed in France throughout the First World War and then began to exhibit in New York. In 1926 a large exhibition of her work at the Chenil Galleries, London, received considerable public attention.

Linked displays and exhibitionsback to top

Events of 1900back to top

Current affairs

The Conservatives return to power, after the Prime Minister Lord Salisbury calls a general election, known as the 'Khaki election', on the back of huge jingoistic support for the Boer War.
The Labour Representation Committee (LRC) is founded from a coalition of socialist groups; they win two seats in the 1900 election and Ramsay Macdonald is appointed secretary. The Labour politician Keir Hardie is also returned to Parliament for Merthyr Tydfilin Wales.

Art and science

German physicist Max Planck proposes the concept of the quantum theory. Sigmund Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams is published. In the text, Freud outlines his theory of dream analysis, crucial to the study of the unconscious, and introduces key concepts in psychoanalysis, such as the Ego.
The Paris International Exhibition, attended by more than 50 million people and including over 76,000 exhibitors, marks the heyday of Art Nouveau.

International

In China the Boxer rebellion takes place. The Boxers were anti-imperialist and against foreign influence in trade, religion, politics and technology in the final years of the Manchu rule. The Boxers invade Beijing, killing 230 foreigners and Chinese Christians. The rebellion is suppressed by a multinational coalition of 20,000 troops, with China being forced to pay large war reparations, contributing to growing nationalist resentment against the Qing dynasty.

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