Curator’s Choice – Gwen John

Posted: 15th September 2021

Humber Museums Partnership - Curator’s Choice – Gwen John

This Bisexual Awareness Week we’re exploring the life and art of Gwen John.

The Seated Woman by Gwen John is from the Ferens Art Gallery collection. It’s an oil painting on canvas of a young girl sat in a cane chair. She is wearing a blue dress and a black shawl and is looking down at a book that she is holding in her hands with a napkin beneath it. Another book and an empty plate are on the round table beside her.

Gwen John was born in Haverfordwest in Wales and spent much of her childhood in Tenby where she and her siblings would go to the coast to sketch. From 1895-1898 she studied at the Slade School of Art at the same time as her brother, the Post-Impressionist artist Augustus John (1878-1961). At the time this was the only art school in Britain which accepted female students. Following this she was a student of James McNeill Whistler at his art school Académie Carmen in Paris. She first publicly exhibited her work in 1900 including a self-portrait which is now in the National Portrait Gallery collection.

In 1904 she returned to Paris where she worked as a model for a number of artists including the sculptor Auguste Rodin, who became her lover until his death ten years later. While Rodin appears to have been the main love of her life, John was likely bisexual and developed other intense attachments, having relationships with both men and women throughout her life.

John herself had a shy character but was strong-willed and deeply passionate. She wrote many intimate and carefully drafted letters to Rodin, in which she reveals her intense love for him, but also acknowledges her tendency to neglect her own wellbeing. Her thoughtful nature can be seen in her paintings, which are both tranquil and exact, full of restrained emotion.

In contrast to the outgoing personality of her more famous brother, John lived quietly, preferring to work in solitude. Her paintings are Intimist in style, usually portraying unnamed women in tranquil domestic scenes, often seated with their hands in their laps or reading. Her cats are also the subject of, or feature in, some of her paintings.

The Seated Woman is typical of John’s work and around 15 versions of the painting survive, some of which are known as ‘The Convalescent’. This version is regarded as one of the best because of its lighter and more sharply contrasted colouring.

This painting shows the very original and technical approach that John developed in her work. She touched each part of the canvas only once with the brush, adding a thick layer of paint that dried into a pitted surface. The subtle tones of this painting are also characteristic of her work.

Although she met many of the other well-known artists of her time, including Picasso and Matisse, John did not align herself with any particular artistic movement. She was reluctant to exhibit and sell her work and was overshadowed by her brother’s fame, meaning her talent was often overlooked during her lifetime. Today she is recognised as one of the most skilled British artists of the Post-Impressionist era.

Pride in Our City

Pride in Our City gif in pink, red and purple

This blog was written in celebration of Bisexual Awareness Week 2021 and feeds in to the wider research being undertaken as part of Hull Museums’ ongoing Pride in Our City project. The project aims to increase LGBTQ+ representation and inclusion throughout all of Hull Museums and Ferens Art Gallery’s delivery, from our research and interpretation to our events and programming.

As part of this work we’re continuing to explore the LGBTQ+ narratives within our collections, if you would like to share any contributions with us, please do get in touch at – PrideInOurCity@gmail.com

To find out more about the Pride in Our City Project and how to get involved, please visit the project page here – http://humbermuseums.com/projects/pride-city-project-2/

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