Life studies

15th October 2004 at 01:00
Joanna Banham reflects on a female artist's view into quiet interiors

Gwen John was almost exclusively a painter of women. With the exception of a few pictures of flowers, children and a corner of her own room, virtually all her major oils are studies of three-quarter length female figures seated or standing in interiors.

The settings are domestic, but the figures themselves are rarely engaged in domestic activities. Sometimes they hold a letter or a book, but often they are portrayed in repose, gazing meditatively at the viewer rather than absorbed in reading. Sometimes called a modern Vermeer, Gwen's quiet stillness has been compared with that of 17th-century Dutch painting. But her interiors are often nondescript and ordinary, containing none of the rich furnishings and accessories associated with Vermeer. She has also been compared with Bonnard and Vuillard. Yet she avoids the highly coloured, decorative and patterned surfaces characteristic of their work, preferring, as here, to concentrate on plain and indeterminate settings as a foil for her figures.

This portrait of Chlo Boughton-Leigh (part of an exhibition at Tate Britain with work by her brother, Augustus John) is among the most assured of her early works. Painted while she was living in Montparnasse in 1907, it is one of three oils and several drawings she made of the sitter.

Chlo Boughton-Leigh and her sister Gilda met Gwen John in Paris where they all became close friends. Gilda, an artist, had studied at the Slade, where Gwen had trained a few years earlier, and Chlo , like Gwen, became a convert to Catholicism. The three women remained in frequent contact after the sisters returned to England and corresponded regularly.

Gwen John's painting of Chlo is far from a conventional portrait. Her costume is particularly unusual. Her simple, loosely-dressed hairstyle contrasts with the contemporary fashion for elaborately coiled and bouffant styles, while the typical belle epoque, tight-fitting, elongated bodice and fussy frills and lace familiar from photographs of the 1890s are replaced with a plainly-cut, round-necked dress buttoned to the waist with a loose skirt. Colours are subdued - predominantly greys and dull yellows with heightened reds and pinks in the face and hair - recalling Whistler, with whom Gwen studied at the Academie Carmen in 1898.

Chlo 's dress is typical of clothes worn by women in artistic circles.

Despite her reputation as a recluse, Gwen was closely involved in this milieu and knew many of the more progressive artists, including Rodin, Picasso and Brancusi. Chlo 's Bohemian clothing thus suggests Gwen's identification with the increasing number of independent women then working as artists in Paris and London.

Viewers are also often struck by the plainness of the sitter in this painting. The figure appears listless, almost slumped in the chair, with an expression that is introverted and somewhat vacant. There has been no attempt to create a traditional image of feminine beauty, either in the manner of the society portraits popularised by John Singer Sargent or in the mode of the overtly sensual women depicted by her brother Augustus.

Eschewing flattery and technical panache, the artist has focused instead on what contemporary critics described as "the colour of ordinary life".

Yet this image is not altogether without warmth or psychological depth. The expression of quiet, meditative reverie suggests a contemplative nature and a rich, spiritual inner life, in keeping with Chlo 's and Gwen's growing interest in religion. Something frank and touchingly vulnerable about the figure suggests an unusual degree of trust and intimacy between the two women.

Gwen John's commitment to realism and her rejection of conventional beauty was clearly influenced by artists such as Walter Sickert and Philip Wilson Steer, who also taught at the Slade. But whereas Sickert's and Steer's images of women frequently obscure their features and offer a voyeuristic view more characteristic of the male gaze, Gwen John's work results from long and intense scrutiny of the model, of the process of painting, and of the artist herself. As another sitter, Jeanne Robert Foster, said: "She cannot endure having the pose changed by a hair's breadth after she has arranged it. She takes my hair down and does it as her own. She has me sit as she does and I feel the absorption of her personality as I sit. She is more myself than I am when I am with her."

Gwen John's portraits may seem repetitive, reticent and preoccupied. The women often remain frustratingly resistant to narrative or psychological interpretations and defy conventional definitions of beauty. Yet their economy of treatment, and their evidence of prolonged and concentrated reflection results in paintings that are more intriguing, subtle and arresting than the more overtly sophisticated and showy work of her contemporaries. They continue to command attention today.

Tate Britain's exhibition at Millbank, London SW1, "Gwen and Augustus John" runs until December 31. Tickets pound;7, pound;5 concessions.

School group bookings, tel: 020 7887 8888. Further information, tel: 020 7887 8734

Joanna Banham is head of public programmes, Tate Britain

Gwen John


Gwen John trained at the Slade School of Art in London from 1895 to 1898, and at Whistler's Academie Carmen in Paris in 1898. She took a walking tour to France with Dorelia McNeil (Augustus John's lover) in 1903 and in 1904 settled in Paris, where she painted, worked as an artist's model, met Rodin and became his lover. The art collector John Quinn became her patron in 1910. In 1913, she converted to Catholicism. In the 1920s and 1930s she exhibited at the Paris salons and other shows, her only solo exhibition at the Chenil Galleries, London, in 1936. She died in obscurity in Dieppe

Lesson ideas

English and history

KS 1-3

What can pupils tell about Chlo Boughton-Leigh from this painting? For example, how old is she? What sort of person is she? What is she thinking, and is she enjoying having her portrait painted?

KS 2-3

Is this a realistic painting? Does it flatter the sitter? How would pupils like to be portrayed in a painting?

KS 3-4

Most students will have posed for school and other photographs. What was that like? How do they differ from drawn or painted portraits? Ask pupils to work in pairs and invite them to take turns to sit for one another for a portrait. Think about what background, setting, clothes and accessories to use and what they reveal about the sitter. Are these the same props that the sitter would choose?

KS 4-5

Pairs could take turns to make portraits of one another - first from life and then from memory. How do the images differ?

KS 4-5

Since the advent of photography, artists have felt less compelled to make a faithful likeness when they work on portraits. Some artists don't even include an image of the model's face anymore. What is the role of portraiture today? Should the portrait always be recognisable? And what medium is best suited to this genre?

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