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On Modernism and Modern Women: Reflections on Gwen John’s Portrait of a Lady
[ Artist in Focus, Artwork in Focus )
Unravel the modernist brilliance and the empowering essence of Gwen John’s Portrait of a Lady with Katie Ackrill, Collections and Exhibitions Officer, Swindon Museums.
Gwen John’s Portrait of a Lady holds a special place in the modern art collection at Swindon Museum and Art Gallery. Purchased in 1947, it was the first work by a female artist to enter the collection, established four years earlier.
At that time, Gwen John’s name was closely linked to that of her famous brother. Augustus John is represented by four artworks at Swindon Museum and Art Gallery which, like many public collections, historically favoured male artists. However, as important scholarship breaks myths about Gwen John and appropriately contextualises her practice, Augustus John’s prediction that his sister’s fame would outweigh his is now being realised.
In turn, our understanding of Portrait of a Lady, and its significance within the collection, becomes increasingly deepened and enriched. This beautifully observed likeness of a friend and fellow artist reflects the milieu in which John operated and became a distinguished artist of her time.
Portrait of a Lady depicts Grilda Boughton Leigh, one of several women who John met during her time at the Slade School of Fine Art (1895-98). At the turn of the century, the Slade provided a unique opportunity for women artists in London. Unlike many art schools, it welcomed them into its programme led by forward-thinking tutors engaged with modern art practice.
Gwen John, Portrait of a Lady, c.1910, Pencil and wash on paper, Swindon Museum and Art Gallery.
During John’s training, around two-thirds of the school’s students were women, providing opportunities to socialise and establish intellectual circles. They also developed skills together, with many of them sitting for one another. With its focus on drawing as the core skill for an artist, the Slade also allowed women to attend life-drawing classes, albeit separately from their male colleagues.
This was a step in the right direction, for women’s presence in art schools was often resisted, whilst social conventions left them confined to the domestic sphere. The opportunity to grow skills and networks within a professional environment coincided with a desire amongst many women, to resist conventional roles. John was an example of a “New Woman”, striving for an independent life and career.
John corresponded with several of her Slade colleagues after she settled in Paris. Chloë and Grilda Boughton Leigh were amongst the friends she maintained relationships with throughout her life, both professionally and personally. The sisters made frequent visits to Paris between 1905 and 1912, during which John painted portraits of them, and sat for them as a model.
During their three-week long Paris visit in 1910, John made portraits of both women. A commissioned portrait of Chloë depicts her against an indistinct monochrome backdrop, wearing a simple and stylish Parisian dress. She regards the viewer with a slightly raised eyebrow, as if interrupted in a moment of contemplation.
Gwen John, Chloe Boughton-Leigh, 1910, Oil on canvas, Leeds Museums and Galleries.
Meanwhile, John made a series of pencil and wash drawings of Grilda Boughton Leigh. The drawing in the collection at Swindon Museum and Art Gallery is small and lightly worked, yet psychologically engaging. The expression of the sitter is somewhat nuanced, oscillating between confident, pensive, and melancholic. As in many of John’s portraits, Boughton Leigh occupies her own physical and psychological space.
All this is depicted with an economical use of materials. Simple, fluid lines capture touching details, such as a wisp of hair escaping the bouffant, or the subtle shadow cast by her upper lip. The technique reflects a modernist approach. For progressive artists of the early 20th century, careful modelling taught by traditional academies gave way to expressive line, simplified forms and blocks of shade and colour.
An earlier portrait of her friend Hilde Flodin from c.1906 is rendered with similar qualities of expressive line and tonal washes. However, the 1910 depiction of Grilda Boughton Leigh shows a development of the technique that feels more fluid and direct. As Alicia Foster observes in Gwen John: Art and Life in London and Paris, this new fluidity also coincides with an emerging desire for repetition.
Gwen John, Head of a Young Woman, c.1906, Pencil and wash on paper, Yale Centre for British Art
Portrait of a Lady is one of at least eleven drawings completed in one sitting. The sitter’s hairstyle and clothing are the same in each work, but there are small variations and multiple angles. Such repetition was a feature of modern art practice. Auguste Rodin and Paul Cézanne, whose work had a profound effect on John, practiced repetition in forms and motifs as part of their radical styles. In John’s case, repetition encouraged a strong sense of line, lending immediacy and expression to carefully observed portraits.
Gwen John was truly an artist of her time, thoroughly engaged with modernism and immersed in the important creative capitals of London and Paris. She depicted women with a quiet intensity and modern sensibility, unaffected by long-established traditions of idealisation processed through Academy teaching and the male gaze. Thus, the presence of Portrait of a Lady in Swindon’s collection signals a moment of change for women artists in the 20th century.
Swindon Museum and Art Gallery thanks Gwen John scholars and Pallant House Gallery for giving time and clarity to the work of this important artist. Their work has enhanced understanding of our collection for the benefit of our audiences.
Katie Ackrill is the Collections and Exhibitions Officer at Swindon Museums who have generously leant us Gwen John’s Portrait of a Lady for our current exhibition, Gwen John: Art and Life in London and Paris.