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Teacher and student notes with key work cards

Gwen John and Augustus John


Tate Britain, 29 September 2004 - 9 January 2005

Gwen John (1876-1939) The Student 1903-4


Oil on canvas 56.1 x 33.1 cms. Manchester City Art Galleries. Estate of Gwen John 2004. All Rights Reserved, DACS

Gwen John and Augustus John


Introduction These introductory notes are intended both for teachers and students from KS4 onwards. They contain some background information about the artists and pinpoint central themes and ideas in the Gwen and Augustus John exhibition. The key work cards that follow (which you could print out and laminate) focus on individual paintings and include suggested discussion points, activities and links to other works, both in the Tate collection and elsewhere. They can be used not only to support an exhibition visit, but also as a classroom resource with a longer shelf-life. Please note: further sets of key work cards are available for sale in Tate shops as part of the Tate Britain and Tate Modern Teachers' Kits, or in themed packs (9.99) which are currently available on Portraits and Identity and Landscape and Environment. The set of key work cards focusing on portraits provides the historical background to the theme. It would therefore be a useful extension to your study of these two 20th century portraitists. Make sure that you look at some of the historic portraits in the Collection displays while you are at Tate Britain, as well as visiting the exhibition. This will help you measure the Johns' achievements in dispensing with rank and status as prerequisites for portraiture. Key themes of the exhibition David Fraser Jenkins, curator of this exhibition, opens his catalogue essay by highlighting two aspects of the artists, Gwen and Augustus John. Firstly he highlights the importance of the simple fact that they were brother and sister and, according to Augustus, 'not opposites but much the same really, but we took a different attitude'. Next he explains that they felt themselves to be outsiders because they were Welsh, not English, and there were not many Welsh artists at that time. Their defensive position was, according to Fraser Jenkins, that they 'abhorred the whole notion of belonging to anything' and as a result they 'were simply not part of the weave of British art'. These defining characteristics should provide a way into the exhibition for students, many of whom have siblings and some of whom, for whatever reason, feel themselves to be outsiders. For discussion before and during your visit - Why do artists make portraits, using paint, sculpture and photography? Is it simply to record appearance, or can you think of other reasons? Look at press photos in newspapers as well as pictures in art books to help you decide. Think about what you want to achieve when you compose a portrait. - Consider what unites and separates you from your brothers and sisters whom you may sometimes feel are your best friends, at other times your worst enemies. In the exhibition look out for similarities and differences between the paintings of this brother and sister. - Do you ever feel yourself to be an outsider? What are the strengths and disadvantages of this position? Look at the work of Gwen and Augustus's contemporaries in rooms 17, 19, 20 and 23 of the Tate Britain collection displays. Can you see what separates the Johns' work from that of artists like Harold Gilman, William Rothenstein or Vanessa Bell? Are there similarities?

Gwen John and Augustus John


A brief outline of the artists' lives Gwen was the older child, born in Haverford West in 1876 while Augustus was born in Tenby in 1878. Their mother died when Gwen was eight and Augustus six, leaving them in the care of an uncommunicative Welsh solicitor father who left them largely to their own devices. Both artists studied at the Slade School of Art in London, then unusual in offering an equal education to both women and men. Augustus stood out immediately from other students because of his skill in drawing which was the basis of art school curriculum at that time, and a great future was predicted for him. In 1901 he married Ida Nettleship, a fellow student and friend of Gwen's. In 1903 Augustus and Gwen shared an exhibition at the Carfax Gallery in London. Augustus wrote to his friend and fellow painter William Rothenstein saying: 'Gwen has the honours or should have ...The little pictures to me are almost painfully charged with feeling'. John Rothenstein, son of William and later director of the Tate Gallery, described Augustus peering 'fixedly, almost obsessively, at pictures by Gwen as though he could discern in them his own temperament in reverse'. One of Augustus's endearing qualities was that he could appreciate his sister's work to the extent of valuing it over and above his own. Augustus's household was complicated by the inclusion of his mistress as well as his wife. This was Dorothy McNeill, discovered by Gwen and given the name Dorelia by the Johns. Also a close friend of Ida, Dorelia like her bore Augustus's children. In 1907 Ida died from complications after the birth of her fifth son and Dorelia filled her place as mother to all their children. From 1907 until 1910 Augustus was praised as the outstanding young artist in London. That valuation declined from about 1916, just as Gwen was coming into her own. Meanwhile from 1904 Gwen had settled in Paris where she earned money by posing for artists. While modelling for sculptor Auguste Rodin she fell in love with him, becoming his mistress. He was 64 and famous; she was 28 and virtually unknown. According to Augustus, whereas she had been 'shy as a sheep' before she met Rodin, she became 'amorous and proud' afterwards. From 1911 until he died of cancer in 1924, an American patron, John Quinn, provided Gwen with a regular income. (Quinn also collected works by Seurat, Czanne, Picasso and Matisse). From January 1911 Gwen rented three rooms in the top storey of a house in rue Terre Neuve in Meudon, about twenty kilometres outside Paris. It was there that she turned to religion, attending church from 1913. She died in Dieppe (nobody knows why she had gone there) in 1939 at the age of 63, shortly after the outbreak of the second world war. Her nephew Edwin, who had visited her in Meudon, made sure that her paintings, neglected by her for some years, were rescued from the outhouse where she had kept them. Augustus lived on to be nearly 84 at the time he died in 1961. He had long since outlived his fame, was drinking too much and was subject to moods of deep depression. Poor Augustus. Using key work cards One aim of this exhibition is to allow us to reassess the work of the two artists. The key work cards present you with a number of contrasts and comparisons to help you identify some characteristics of each artist's work. The first comparison is between the brother and sister's different ways of seeing Dorelia as a Woman Smiling and as The Student. Next you could compare outdoors and indoors with Augustus's Lyric Fantasy set in a landscape and Gwen's interior The Artist's Room in Paris. The third comparison is between Gwen's two outstandingly frank portraits of model Fenella Lovell, clothed and naked. And finally the contrast between Augustus's Joseph Hone and Gwen's The Nun invites you to consider two very different ways of making a portrait. There are many other linked paintings in the exhibition for you to compare. See how many pairings you can find. For discussion Do you prefer one of the artists to the other? Is is there one whose work you prefer, for personal reasons perhaps?

Gwen John and Augustus John

Augustus John (1878-1961) Woman Smiling 1908-9


Oil on canvas, 1960 x 982 mm Tate. Presented by the Contemporary Art Society 1917 copyright courtesy of the artist's estate / www.bridgeman.co.uk

Gwen John and Augustus John


'The vitality of this gypsy Gioconda is fierce, disquieting, emphatic.'
Roger Fry's reaction to Woman Smiling, published in The Burlington Magazine, May 1909.

Augustus John (1878-1961) Woman Smiling 1908-9


Oil on canvas, 1960 x 982 mm Tate. Presented by the Contemporary Art Society 1917 copyright courtesy of the artist's estate / www.bridgeman.co.uk

Background Can you imagine being taken aback, or perhaps even shocked, by this portrait if you had seen it in the exhibition of Fair Women in 1909? Probably not. From today's standpoint it is even difficult to conceive of an exhibition with such a sexist name ever taking place. In that show contemporary artworks like Woman Smiling were juxtaposed with old master paintings so that viewers could contrast the beauties of one age with those of another. By describing her as a "gypsy Gioconda", art critic Roger Fry was making a link between the sitter's smile and the most famous of all portraits, Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa, otherwise known as La Gioconda. Traditionally, commissioned portraits tended to be of people of rank or fortune. Part of the reason why the painting surprised people so much was that Dorelia, who posed for this portrait, had neither. She had designed her own "gypsy" dress, encouraged in this by Augustus who was fascinated by gypsies, envying them their independent way of life. He had learnt the English version of Romani to be able to talk to them in their own language which he also used to write love letters to Dorelia, obligingly supplying her with word lists so that she would be able to understand what he had written! Augustus painted this portrait of Dorelia some years after Gwen had depicted her in The Student. Notice how much plumper she looks in Augustus's version. He had told Dorelia 'Your fat excites me enormously', whereas Gwen painted her at the end of an a hundred and fifty mile walk during which there had been no surplus of food to eat. Fry described the effect of 'intense life' in Woman Smiling and one of Augustus's great accomplishments is his ability to make the sitter come alive for us. He achieves a sense of vitality in part through boldly applied brushstrokes. You will have to go close - but not too close - to the painting to observe this.

. . . .

For discussion There are at least twenty works in this exhibition, drawings as well as paintings, by Augustus of Dorelia. She posed frequently for him not just because he loved her but because she was very good at adapting herself to the pose the artist wanted. How do you interpret the different poses Augustus asked her to adopt? What roles does she play other than that of gypsy? To put yourself in the position of viewers of this painting when it was first exhibited, have a look at some traditional portraits in the collection displays, starting with the supercilious Queen Elizabeth 1 c 1575 in room 2, attributed to Nicholas Hilliard. (You will have to do this before or after entering the exhibition). Compare this portrait of Dorelia with Gwen's The Student. What different aspects of her personality have Gwen and Augustus emphasised in their portrayals? Activities Augustus turned Dorelia into a gypsy to show how special he thought she was. Imagine a new role for your girl/boyfriend, or even yourself, and sketch them/yourself in that guise.

Links Augustus was not the only artist to be interested in gypsies. Compare his Caravan: a Gypsy Encampment 1905 with Alfred Munnings's Epsom Downs - City and Suburban Day 1919 (visit www.tate.org.uk/collection to see the Munnings). Although the two pictures are strikingly similar in their free brushwork, Munnings is painting an exotic scene from the outside whereas Augustus knew what gypsy life was like through living in a caravan with Dorelia.

Gwen John and Augustus John

Gwen John (1876-1939) The Student 1903-4


Oil on canvas 56.1 x 33.1 cms. Manchester City Art Galleries. Estate of Gwen John 2004. All Rights Reserved, DACS

Gwen John and Augustus John


'She was extremely strange and hard ...always attracted to the wrong people for their beauty alone. But her work was more important than anyone.' Dorelia speaking about Gwen John after her death to Augustus's biographer, Michael Holroyd.
Gwen John (1876-1939) The Student 1903-4
Oil on canvas 56.1 x 33.1 cms. Manchester City Art Galleries. Estate of Gwen John 2004. All Rights Reserved, DACS

Background Augustus was not the only person to be attracted to Dorelia. Gwen was too. For this reason, when the two women set off together in 1903 to walk through France to Rome their venture took on the flavour of an elopement. In fact they got no further than Toulouse but this in itself was no mean feat as by then they had walked a hundred and fifty miles from Bordeaux. They slept out of doors in barns, stealing bread and fruit on the way and Gwen would draw portraits in cafs in exchange for a meal. Dorelia must have been glad when the walk ended and all she was required to do was to model for her portrait because her 'hard'friend had insisted she carry her equipment on the walk so that Gwen's artist hands would not be damaged! They rented a cheap room in Toulouse for the winter of 1903-4 and there Gwen painted four pictures of her companion. Although this portrait might seem unassuming, like Woman Smiling it breaks with a long tradition of British portraiture in that it tells us nothing about the sitter's rank or status in society. Dorelia's dress is timeless, the background gives us no clue as to where she is. It is evening and she stands out from the dark background, alone and immersed in thought. The other important element in her portrayal is the book held under her left arm and those which lie on the table. Darkness is a time for reading and contemplation. La Russie (the title of the wellthumbed book shown uppermost on the table) evokes ideas of travel to far off lands. Many artists including Vincent Van Gogh, and right up to the present day, believe that reading books feeds and stimulates their art. But art has its own language of line, form and colour which Gwen John was to make her own. In 1898 Gwen had attended American artist J McNeill Whistler's art school in Paris. When Whistler met Augustus in the Louvre, Augustus asked him whether he agreed that Gwen was skilled in capturing character. 'Character?' retorted Whistler, who had taught Gwen the art of tonal relationships, 'What's that? Your sister has a fine sense of tone'. In this painting the mellow shades of Dorelia's face together with the brighter white of the pages of La Russie attract our attention first. But then we may notice all the subtle gradations of cool greys and warm browns that exist both in the room and on the table.

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For discussion Augustus's presentation of Dorelia in Woman Smiling is a painting of a relationship between a man and a woman. What about The Student: does it reveal anything about Gwen's feelings for Dorelia? Compare Dorelia's dress in this painting to the one worn by Miss Chloe Boughton-Leigh c.1907 (Tate) in the exhibition. Do you think both models are wearing the same dress which Gwen might have owned as a studio prop and altered for each of them to wear? (This is not a question for which there is a known answer). One of Gwen's sitters said that the artist tried to make her resemble herself as much as possible before painting her by choosing her pose and hairstyle. Making her model wear her own dress would have enhanced the similarities. Activities Gwen uses the books in this painting to envelope her sitter in a particular mood. Draw or paint yourself using a different prop to suggest your particular interests or to create a specific mood.

Links Visit www.vangoghmuseum.nl and go to Permanent Collections to find Vincent van Gogh's Still Life with Books 1887 and Study for 'Romans Parisiens' 1888. These are the same kind of soft backed books as in Gwen John's painting. The books carry their own French personality; like people they contribute to the atmosphere of the painting. Do you prefer the books on their own (Van Gogh) or with a person (Gwen John)? Work out the reason for your preference.

Gwen John and Augustus John

Augustus John (1878-1961) Lyric Fantasy c1913/14


Oil and pencil on canvas 23380 x 4720 mm. Tate. Bequeathed by Mrs Reine Pitman 1972 copyright courtesy of the artist's estate / www.bridgeman.co.uk

Gwen John and Augustus John


'I am apt to search much further back than human memory can tell of, to Pre-history and the Dawn, for clues to a clearer sense of personal identity.' Augustus John in his memoir, Finishing Touches
Augustus John (1878-1961) Lyric Fantasy c1913/14
Oil and pencil on canvas 23380 x 4720 mm. Tate. Bequeathed by Mrs Reine Pitman 1972 copyright courtesy of the artist's estate / www.bridgeman.co.uk

Background Augustus is always presented as a flamboyant opposite to Gwen; one of our tasks in viewing the exhibition is to decide whether they really were so different. Certainly he was much more showy, a man with long hair who dressed as a gypsy, had affairs with many women and who, in 1905, arranged for Dorelia to have their first child in a caravan on Dartmoor. Perhaps because he had experienced life in the open air, landscape features strongly in his figure compositions. It is scarcely present in Gwen's work at all. In 1911 he had moved his family to a country house (Alderney Manor) in Dorset and the scenery in Lyric Fantasy is inspired by Wareham Heath with its small lakes. This landscape provides a timeless setting for a gathering of figures which include Augustus's dead wife Ida (far right). Deeply upset by her death in 1907, Augustus has restored her to life in this painting. Dorelia is shown playing a guitar near the centre and the two women's children play amongst some unidentified adults. Augustus believed that 'the artist is always an outsider ...Perhaps in a dream he has caught a glimpse of a Golden Age and is in search of it'. The question is, does he succeed here in capturing this Golden Age? Does the picture work as well as Gwen's much more down to earth record of her room in Paris? The fact that Lyric Fantasy is unfinished may suggest that Augustus was dissatisfied with it. Perhaps the fact that Sir Hugh Lane, who had commissioned the picture, died on the Lusitania when it was torpedoed by the Germans in 1915, might have disheartened him. The format of the painting with its band of figures stretched right across the surface might have been suggested by Picasso's ground-breaking Les Demoiselles d'Avignon which Augustus had seen when he visited the artist in his Paris studio in August 1907. In the same year Augustus expressed sympathy for Picasso's bold simplifications by declaring: 'I am about to paint a picture (Lyric Fantasy) which will prove conclusively that the finest decoration can be produced without any reference to visual "nature"'.

For discussion What difference in atmosphere does the open air setting of Lyric Fantasy create in comparison with Gwen's portrait of her room in Paris? Are there any similarities in mood between the two paintings?

Activity When you next paint figures, experiment by placing them first in an outdoor and then in an indoor setting. What difference does the setting create in the atmosphere of your group?

Links This painting features both Augustus's dead wife and his living mistress with some of their children. He paints his family as a dynasty just as David des Granges did in the mid seventeenth century in The Saltonstall Family, which you can see in gallery room 2 outside the exhibition. Find this huge painting or see it reproduced by visiting www.tate.org.uk/collection. It features Sir Richard Saltonstall standing with his children and his seated second wife who is holding her new baby. Sir Richard's first wife who has died is the ghostly figure in the bed gesturing towards her children. Notice that in Lyric Fantasy Ida also looks towards two of her children, but as in the earlier work, they cannot see her. In your opinion which is the more convincing inclusion of a ghost with the living? Why? (The Saltonstall Family is also available as a key work card in the Portraits set which is on sale in Tate shops.)

Gwen John and Augustus John

Gwen John (1876-1939) A Corner of the Artist's Room in Paris (with Open Window) 1907-09
Oil on canvas on board 31.2 x 24.8 cm National Museums & Galleries of Wales Copyright Estate of Gwen John 2004. All Rights Reserved, DACS

Gwen John and Augustus John


'My room is so delicious after a whole day outside, it seems to me that I am not myself except in my room.' Gwen John in a letter to Rodin
Gwen John (1876-1939) A Corner of the Artist's Room in Paris (with Open Window) 1907-09
Oil on canvas on board 31.2 x 24.8 cm National Museums & Galleries of Wales Copyright Estate of Gwen John 2004. All Rights Reserved, DACS

Background A painting of a room can be more than just a description of appearances. Very often the room is thought to say something about the people who live there. Sometimes male artists have painted rooms as women's space to try to understand the environment in which they live. Gwen John painted several views of the rooms she lived in which are quite as expressive of her personality as her self-portraits. This one shows her attic room in an eighteenth century house in the Rue du Cherche Midi in Paris, where she lived from spring 1907 to autumn 1909. The simplicity of the room with its few possessions (which you will find repeated in other paintings) is presented as an ideal. It may make you envy the life she led there on her own. She was no hermit; she had friends and contacts with the Paris art world and remained in contact with her brother and his family. Nonetheless her life was very different and much quieter than his. Gwen does not exclude the outer world entirely; her outdoor clothes are draped over her cheap wicker chair. The bright daylight outside shines through the open window into the subdued light of the room. The picture was painted at the time that Gwen's love affair with sculptor Auguste Rodin was declining and the empty chair might suggest an absent presence. That could be the artist herself or it might stand as her hope that Rodin will come back to sit in it. Yet the overall atmosphere of the interior is of contentment rather than of sadness.

For discussion Compare this painting with A Corner of the Artist's Room in Paris c.1907-9. What differences are there in the two pictures? How do the changes in the painting with a closed window affect the atmosphere? Which room seems the more inviting to you? Look closely at the way Gwen laid on the paint in these two pictures and compare their texture with that of Lyric Fantasy. Does the way the pictures are painted match the overall mood?

Activity Does your own bedroom reflect your own personality? If not, how could you alter it to make it seem more like you?

Links Compare the empty chair in Gwen John's painting with the one in Van Gogh's Chair 1888 in the National Gallery. (To see an image of this painting, visit www.nationalgallery.org.uk and look for it under 'Permanent Collection'). If the chairs stand for the absent artists, how do you read the difference in their characters? Imagine a conversation between the two chairs. Is one more feminine, more gentle, more easily offended than the other? In room 19 of Tate Britain look at Harold Gilman's French Interior c1905-7. Gilman was born in the same year as Gwen John and also painted portraits and interiors. How is the mood of this painting different from Gwen's? Does the inclusion of a person add to or diminish the work's atmospheric content?

Gwen John and Augustus John

Gwen John (1876-1939) Nude Girl 1909-10


Oil on canvas, 445 x 279 mm Tate. Presented by the Contemporary Arts Society 1917 Estate of Gwen John 2004. All Rights Reserved, DACS

Gwen John and Augustus John


'It is a great strain doing Fenella. It is a pretty little face but she is dreadful.' Gwen in a letter to her friend Ursula Tyrwhitt, Sept 1909
Gwen John (1876-1939) Nude Girl 1909-10
Oil on canvas, 445 x 279 mm Tate. Presented by the Contemporary Arts Society 1917 Estate of Gwen John 2004. All Rights Reserved, DACS

Background Gwen John's painting fits American art critic Robert Rosenblum's notions of Britishness in two ways. Firstly because hers is 'an art of whispered tonalities' which follows on from Whistler's often nearly monochrome paintings. Secondly because, like Stanley Spencer and Lucian Freud in their treatment of sexual themes, some of her paintings 'reveal the volcano beneath the placid surface'. Nude Girl and Girl with Bare Shoulders of the same year are cases in point. Augustus wrote to John Rothenstein that Gwen's 'passions for both men and women were outrageous and irrational'. These two paintings of model Fenella Lovell track Gwen's disillusionment with the woman whose blue eyes had originally attracted her and whom she had paid 15 (a great deal of money at the time) to model for her. Nude Girl is unusual both in the thinness of the naked girl and in its frank exposition of unhappy feelings. We are used to seeing old master pictures, painted by men, of desirable nudes. Fenella is not confidently nude but exposed as naked, so thin that she could be anorexic. Like Fenella who had been rejected as a model by Rodin because she was too thin, Gwen was eating very little because she was upset because Rodin was no longer her lover. He and his secretary, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, were distressed at her self-imposed diet of chestnuts in milk. To writer John Berger, the word naked means 'to be oneself, to be without disguise' and Fenella reveals her undisguised self. Instead of using her clothes to add to her attractions she wears a dress that looks as if it might fall off any moment. Writer and painter Wyndham Lewis, whose portrait by Augustus is included in the exhibition, noted 'the anguished rigidity of the pose' of the Nude Girl. Look at how her long, long arm adds to this feeling of extreme awkwardness and discomfort in both paintings.

For discussion Look at the Girl with Bare Shoulders and the Nude Girl. Does their gaze make you feel uncomfortable? Why might that be? In your opinion, what is Fenella thinking about the artist for whom she is posing?

Activity Once you have left the exhibition, find Parting at Morning 1891 by William Rothenstein in gallery room 17. In what ways does it resemble the Girl with Bare Shoulders? Which of the two paintings do you find more disturbing and why?

Links Visit www.google.com and go to 'Images'. Type in 'Maja Desnuda'. Compare the attitude of male artist Francisco de Goya, who died in 1828, to a nude woman, with Gwen John's approach to female nakedness. How can you describe the differences?

Gwen John and Augustus John

Augustus John (1878-1961) Joseph Hone 1932


Oil on canvas, 508 x 405 mm Tate. Purchased 1946 copyright courtesy of the artist's estate / www.bridgeman.co.uk

Gwen John and Augustus John


'John was fifty-three in 1931, but he seemed old, his hair was grey, his eyes bloodshot.' Lady Mosley about Augustus John in 1931
Augustus John (1878-1961) Joseph Hone 1932
Oil on canvas, 508 x 405 mm Tate. Purchased 1946 copyright courtesy of the artist's estate / www.bridgeman.co.uk

Background In his excellent biography of Augustus John, Michael Holroyd paints a picture of a man who by the time he was 54 (his age when he painted this picture) was riddled by self-doubt, subject to fits of terrible gloom, often isolated himself from communication with others and who tried to find solace in overgenerous quantities of alcohol. He had long outlived his early popularity and fame as an artist although he had been elected RA (Royal Academician), considered a high achievement, just four years earlier, in 1928. One talent that he never lost, however, was the ability to conjure up a living likeness of his friends, not only in their appearance but in their character. Joe Hone was an old friend, a distinguished Irish biographer, best remembered for a biography of his friend and contemporary, the poet WB Yeats. Holroyd describes him as as 'an Irishman of impressive silence', and there is something about these slightly glazed, dreamy eyes that lends credence to that description. In 1927 the John family had moved to Fryern Court on the edge of the New Forest. Hone came there to stay in the early summer of 1932 and sat for his portrait. Augustus was not particularly pleased with the results and would have liked to do more drawings but his friend was unable to return and the picture remained, at Dorelia's request, as he had left it.

For discussion Augustus John had the ability to bring his sitters to life with quite startling effect. Look for example at the portrait of his son Robin c.1912 and of his friend and fellow artist Wyndham Lewis c.1905. Does Joseph Hone come magically alive for you? (If not, why not?) What kind of a man do you think he was? At the time he painted this picture Augustus John was generally considered to be past his prime (read the quotation at the top of this page). He himself was worried that he had lost his talent. What is your verdict? Augustus was often able to enter imaginatively into the shoes of his sitter. Compare his outward going attitude in this portrait with Gwen's The Nun. Does Gwen bring out characteristics of the nun in the same way?

Activity Compare this portrait with others by Augustus in the exhibition. In your opinion, which sitter does he bring most effectively to life?

Links At the height of his fame Augustus was seen as continuing in his portraits where JS Sargent had left off. On leaving the exhibition look at Sargent paintings on display in collection rooms 9, 15 and 17 and see whether you can see a connection between the two styles of portraiture.

Gwen John and Augustus John

Gwen John (1876-1939) The Nun c 1915-21


Oil on board, 707 x 446 mm Tate. Purchased 1940 Estate of Gwen John 2004. All Rights Reserved, DACS

Gwen John and Augustus John


'Ma religion et mon art, c'est toute ma vie.'
('My religion and my art are my entire life.')
Gwen John (1876-1939) The Nun c 1915-21
Oil on board, 707 x 446 mm Tate. Purchased 1940 Estate of Gwen John 2004. All Rights Reserved, DACS

Gwen John

Background Gwen became a Roman Catholic in 1913. She had admired the costumes of the Sisters of Charity who ran an orphanage in the small town of Meudon where she lived. She met the Mother Superior and promised to paint a number of pictures of the founder of their order, Mre Poussepin. She worked from a printed prayer card, using as her models two nuns who adopted the posture of Mre Poussepin. Gwen found the work difficult and did not complete the first painting for seven years. The Nun is the earliest painting of a nun in this exhibition and she is shown wearing the original seventeenth century headdress worn by Mre Poussepin on the prayer card. About this time Gwen wrote: 'I don't live when I spend time without thought'. Unlike her brother who, in his portraits of friends, brought out their individual characteristics, Gwen used nonprofessional models in order to create archetypal images. That is to say that her interest lay in the condition of being a nun rather than in the personality of one specific nun. The viewer's hunch that she picked up qualities in her sitters that corresponded to her own characteristics will be strengthened by these works which clearly express her own satisfaction in quiet thoughtfulness and introspection. In them she expressed what she described to her friend Ursula Tyrwhitt as 'a more interior life'. Working on a plaster ground, Gwen applied her paint in separate touches echoing the simple patterns of Japanese prints which she admired. The paintings of nuns were much admired at Gwen's one-man show at the Chenil Gallery in 1926.

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For discussion Look at all Gwen John's paintings of nuns and of Mre Poussepin. Do the paintings share any one quality? What is special about the artist's range of colours and her technique in these works? Do you think they accord well with the subject? Activity After you leave the exhibition find room 14 of the collection displays. Find GF Watts's The Dweller in the Innermost c1885-6 in which a winged female figure with a trumpet personifies self-reflective thought and the human conscience. Which expresses such feelings best for you, this painting or Gwen John's The Nun?

Links Also in the collection displays, look at Harold Gilman's Mrs Mounter at the Breakfast Table exh. 1917 in room 19 so that you can compare it with The Nun. The two women have very different professions; Mrs Mounter was Gilman's landlady. But can you find any similarities in the way the artists present the two women?