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Gwen John's Female Gaze
[ Artist in Focus )
Art historian and author of MUSE, Ruth Millington explores how Gwen John challenges the traditional narrative of the female muse by portraying her muses as individuals with their own inner lives and agency, presenting empathetic and complex portraits that defy objectification and embrace the female gaze.
“I cannot imagine why my vision will have some value in the world… and yet I know it will”, wrote Welsh artist Gwen John. Her portraits of solitary women reading, thinking, sewing and sitting are quietly rebellious, presenting narratives that challenge stereotypes of the female muse through the gaze of a great female artist.
In traditional art historical narratives – largely written by and to benefit men – the muse has been framed as a young, reclining, female nude. Posing passively, she submits herself to an older male artist, who takes inspiration from her beauty; she exists to be objectified. Through their images of tragic, sleeping and weeping women, the likes of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Constantin Brâncuși and Pablo Picasso cemented the notion that every great male artist must possess a romantic muse. “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working” were the words of Picasso who denied his sitters credit, while demanding the spotlight for himself alone.
But this trope of the muse – which numerous male artists and their biographers have revelled in – is reductive and unfair. At their origin, in ancient Greek mythology, the muses were nine sister goddesses upon whom poets, musicians and writers relied for inspiration and knowledge. Throughout history, artists have continued to rely on muses who have brought far more than beauty to the role, and instead had real agency, entering into creative, collaborative and intellectual relationships with those who have portrayed them.
Gwen John, Chloe Boughton-Leigh, 1910, Oil on canvas, Leeds Museums and Galleries.
In contrast to many of her male counterparts, John represented her muses as individuals with their own inner lives. From 1895 to 1898 she studied at London’s Slade School of Art, which at the start of the 20th century was one of the first art schools in Britain that welcomed female students on equal terms to men. It was here that she met fellow artists, including Chloe Boughton-Leigh, who modelled for her. In Chloe Boughton-Leigh, 1910, her seated muse stares into the distance, head tilted at an angle, hands positioned prominently in her lap.
Gwen John, Woman holding a Flower, 1922, Oil on canvas, Presented by the Friends of Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery, 1949, Photo by Birmingham Museums Trust, licensed under CC0.
Likewise, in Woman holding a Flower, 1922, Boughton-Leigh’s expression is inscrutable as she contemplates something beyond the picture plane. Keeping a respectful distance, John doesn’t attempt to control or objectify her subjects. “I don’t pretend to know anybody well. People are like shadows to me and I am like a shadow”, she once said. Instead, she offers her viewers empathetic portraits of women who have their own complex internal and emotional lives which can’t be packaged neatly into a portrait.
Gwen John, Dorelia in a Black Dress, 1903-4, Oil on canvas, 73 x 48.9 cm, Tate: Presented by the Trustees of the Duveen Paintings Fund 1949, Tate.
Dorelia McNeill was another female artist who modelled for John on numerous occasions. In Dorelia in a Black Dress, c.1903-4, John has paid particular attention to her model’s arms and hands, positioned prominently, and confidently, across her waist. Echoing the emphasis on Boughton-Leigh’s expressive hands, it’s as if John was signifying that her two sitters were artists, as well as models. So many great women artists have also been muses, with Dora Maar, Françoise Gilot, Elizabeth Siddal, Camille Claudel and Emile Flöge among those who brought artistic understanding and influences to their collaborations with their creative peers.
August Rodin, Head of Gwen John (Head of Whistler’s Muse), c. 1906, Plaster,Private Collection, UK, Courtesy of Browse & Darby, London.
John, herself, modelled for several painters and sculptors, including her younger brother Augustus, and Auguste Rodin, with whom she had a romantic relationship that art history has obsessed over. It makes sense, then, that she would depict her own female muses with understanding and sensitivity, framing them as individuals found sat or standing alone, self-possessed in their own spheres.
John also sat for her female classmates and she is said to have preferred modelling for other women artists, including Mary Constance Lloyd, who painted her nude portrait Gwen John in 1905. Women were discouraged, if not barred, from painting the naked body until well into the mid-20th century. In fact, it was John’s generation of female artists who were the first to gain full access to the life drawing room, consciously reframing the nude through their female gaze.
It was Laura Mulvey who coined the term ‘male gaze’ in her influential essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (1975), exploring the ways in which the visual media framed female bodies as objects of desire for the gratification of a heterosexual male audience. John Berger also famously applied this thinking to advertising and art history, analysing the active male artist in opposition to the passive female model in Ways of Seeing (1972):
“The female nude in Western painting was there to feed an appetite of male sexual desire. She existed to be looked at, posed in such a way that her body was displayed to the eye of the viewer”.
Since then, the female gaze has come to mean a female artist, spectator or director representing women as subjects having agency, as we find in the paintings of John. Yet, this doesn’t mean that the female gaze can’t offer viewers images of the female nude, and sensual ones at that. A lingering taboo of art history has been discussions of female desire, and it’s essential that John’s work is explored in this context, especially as she was a bisexual and therefore portrayed her female subjects through a queer lens.
Gwen John, Seated Nude, 1923-4, Oil on canvas, Private Collection courtesy of Hazlitt Holland-Hibbert
In Seated Nude c.1923-24, her female model, anonymous on this occasion, sits alone and at ease. This painting belongs to a small group of nude paintings executed by John during this period, in which she played with art history’s enduring motif of fabric; her semi-draped sitters hold onto its folds, as if deciding just how much of themselves they want to reveal, or conceal, for intimate portraits by John. Painted with warmth, rather than from a voyeuristic perspective, artist and model appear to have been allies in shared decisions about pose and composition.
Paintings such as this also demonstrate John’s interest in the language of representation itself, as she proved her skill as a painter able to manipulate the theatre of fabric, as great masters and mistresses had done before her. But, above all, John’s life studies prove her great ability to capture the psychological aspects of her sitters, as individuals – while their bodies are exposed, they maintain a detached, internalised gaze which is impossible to penetrate.
Gwen John, Self-portrait nude, c. 1909, Pencil and gouache on paper, Private Collection, Courtesy of Patrick Bourne and Co., London.
At times, John also presented herself unclothed. In Self-portrait nude, c.1909, all drapery has fallen away, while she sketches, paper in hand, as if caught in the act of art-making. “I am going to do some drawings or paintings…in the mirror of my wardrobe…with myself as a figure doing something”, wrote John. Throughout history, women have taken to self-portraiture to assert their creative identity: Sofonisba Anguissola, Catharina van Hemessen and Artemisia Gentileschi all portrayed themselves, with pencil or paintbrush in hand, as practising, professional artists.
Why, then, did John choose to portray herself nude, rather than as a clothed artist, in overalls or apron, demanding that she be taken seriously? What she has created is clever – through this layered self-portrait John doesn’t divorce, but rather embraces, her multiple identities as a model, creative muse and artist. Likewise, in Autoportrait à la Lettre, (Self Portrait with a letter), c.1907-9, John references her relationship with Rodin, to whom she wrote not hundreds, but thousands, of letters. While their partnership began with John acting as artistic muse for Rodin, he also influenced her work including this painting which she gave to him – after all, he was her muse too.
Gwen John, Autoportrait à la Lettre, (Self-Portrait with a letter), c.1907-9, Pencil and Watercolour, Musée Rodin.
For too long, mainstream discussions about the muse have been synonymous with great male artists’ portrayals of their romantic female partners. Art historians must challenge these overly simplistic narratives by looking at this subject from another and much neglected point of view: the female gaze. In the case of John, who surely reflected on her own role as a model, here is an artist who presents her muses as complex, inspiring individuals with artistic, intellectual and sexual lives of their own. In her frame, John’s sitters appear to have agency, choosing the extent to which they share themselves with her through the two-way, creative exchange that is portraiture.
Gwen John: Art and Life in London and Paris is open until 8 October 2023.
Ruth Millington is an art historian, critic and writer, specialising in modern and contemporary art. Her first book MUSE (Penguin, 2022) tells the true stories of 30 inspiring individuals who collaborated with artists on their portraits, reframing the muse as an active agent in art history.