Gwen John by Gwen John

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    Gwen John,    by Gwen John,    circa 1900,    NPG 4439,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
A self-portrait of the pioneering artist and feminist icon, Gwen John.
Gwen John
by Gwen John
oil on canvas, circa 1900
24 in. x 14 7/8 in. (610 mm x 378 mm)
NPG 4439
© National Portrait Gallery, London
On display in Room 24 on Floor 2 at the National Portrait Gallery

Gwen John (1876–1939) was a painter who is particularly known for her portraits of unnamed women, painted in subtle Tone A shade of a colour. . She is remembered as a Feminist Having or based on the belief that women should have the same rights and opportunities as men. icon and one of the leading female artists of the twentieth century.

John was a young woman, aged about 24 years old, when she painted this strong, skilfully observed self-portrait. It was painted at a time when it was very unusual for women to be professional painters.

Analysing the portrait

  • View larger image
    Gwen John,    by Gwen John,    circa 1900,    NPG 4439,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Gwen John, by Gwen John, circa 1900

Look carefully at the portrait. Take your time – look at it for at least a whole minute. What can you see?

    • Gwen John stands with her hands on hips, head held high with chin raised and her back upright.
    • Her head is turned slightly, and she looks out at us with a steady, commanding Gaze The relationship of looking between sitter, artist and viewer. .
    • Her expression and Pose A particular position in which somebody stands or sits in order to be painted, drawn or photographed. make her seem confident – and possibly defiant, as if she is challenging us.
    • She is wearing a russet-coloured blouse with puffed sleeves and lots of folds and pleats. It is gathered at the waist with a wide buckled belt. She isn’t wearing any jewellery but has a large dark bow at her neck.
    • The rich, shiny fabric of the blouse, along with the huge bow, puffed sleeves and wide belt seem to emphasise a sense of confidence.
    • The clothes also make her appear bigger – the sleeves of the blouse filling the space either side of her. Perhaps this is a form of power dressing – ‘don’t mess with me’ she seems to be telling us.
    • This is a three-quarter length portrait, and John’s head and upper body fill the space. This enables us to see her facial expression clearly, as well as her choice of outfit and her body language.
    • She has painted herself against a plain background. This means there are no distractions, and our focus is on her.
    • The shape of her splayed hand echoes the ‘puff’ of her sleeve, emphasising its flamboyant shape.
    • The position of the hand, at the bottom of the painting, also acts as a counterbalance to her face (as the only other pale area of the portrait) drawing our eyes around the painting.
    • The strong composition of this self-portrait contrasts with its subtle, Muted Colours that are not bright. colours.
    • She has used oil paints and chosen a subtle Tonal Relating to shades of colour. range of Muted Colours that are not bright. colours.
    • She perhaps chose these earthy colours to make her seem serious and grounded.
    • The colours might also remind us of Old Master A skilled and distinguished artist, active between the 1200s and 1600s in Europe. paintings – such as Rembrandt A Dutch artist active in the 1600s, known for his use of rich colour, light and shadow, and his interest in personality and character. ’s self-portraits. This perhaps suggests that Gwen John saw herself within a grand tradition of portrait painting and that she wanted to be seen as equal with these painters of the past.
    • The dark Tone A shade of a colour. of the background contrasts with the lighter Tone A shade of a colour. used to paint her blouse and skin, ensuring that she stands out.
    • She has used broad, loose brushstrokes to paint her clothes and the background behind her. These contrast with the smaller, more subtle marks and dabs of paint that she has used to model the details of her face.
I think I will count because I am patient and recueilli [contemplative] in some degree.
Gwen John, 1930

Who was Gwen John?

  • Gwen John studied at the Slade School of Art in London in the late 1890s. At this time, it was rare for women to train as professional artists. The Slade was one of the first art schools in Britain to admit women.
  • After her time at the Slade, she lived independently, not relying on family for financial support. Again, this was unusual, and makes her an early Feminist Having or based on the belief that women should have the same rights and opportunities as men. role model. She lived in Paris for most of her life.
  • To support herself and her painting, Gwen John worked as a model for artists, including the sculptor Auguste Rodin, who she had a relationship with.
  • John was a successful artist during her lifetime. She gained particular attention for a major exhibition of her work in London in 1926. She is known for her paintings, mainly of unnamed women, using subtle, Muted Colours that are not bright. Tone A shade of a colour. that are closely related to each other in colour.
  • Her brother, Augustus John, was also an artist. Despite Gwen’s success, Augustus became more famous than his sister, even though he thought she was a better painter than him. He said her paintings were ‘almost painfully charged with feeling’.
  • Gwen John’s reputation has grown steadily since her death. Her ability and achievements as an artist are now thought to have been greater than her brother’s.
  • Today, she is seen as one of the leading female artists of the twentieth century.

Why is this portrait significant?

  • When Gwen John painted this self-portrait, in about 1900, women didn’t have a vote, so they had little influence on laws or how society was governed. The lives of most women generally revolved around caring for children, looking after their husbands, and carrying out domestic duties such as shopping, cooking and cleaning.
  • John was a skilled a painter – a career almost exclusively reserved for men at that time.
  • She was determined to pursue her own path in art rather than follow the fashions of the time. It is perhaps this sense of pride, confidence and defiance that is reflected in the self-portrait.
  • Gwen John painted this self-portrait when she was around 24 years old.
  • Although still young, her ability as a painter is clearly seen. The skin and features of her face are skilfully observed with subtle delicate marks, lines and shadows and we can almost feel the silky fabric of her blouse.
  • The strength of the portrait seems to contradict her own description of herself at this time as shy, timid and a ‘waif’ (someone who is very small and thin, or undernourished – she was known for neglecting her health).
  • However shy she was in person, she seemed to know how significant her art was, and that the world would one day recognise this.


  1. Copy Gwen John’s pose and expression in this portrait. How does it make you feel?
  1. What do you think she is saying about herself in this portrait? Why do you think that?
  1. Why might she have chosen to show herself in this way?
  1. Why do you think Gwen John is seen as more successful today than she was in her own lifetime?