Gwen John 1876-1939


The Artist's Estate

Anthony d'Offay Gallery, London

Mrs Caroline Conran, 1982

Private Collection


1982, London, Anthony d'Offay Gallery, Gwen John 1876-1939, 1 July - 22 Aug. 1982, cat. no. 41
Gwen John was born in Pembrokeshire, Wales, in 1876. She studied at the Slade School of Fine Art in London between 1895 and 1898 alongside her younger brother Augustus, where she was taught by the infamous Professor of Drawing, Henry Tonks. The year she left the Slade, she made her first trip to Paris, studying at the Académie Carmen under Whistler, eventually settling permanently in Paris in 1904. Working as an artist’s model to support herself financially, she became Auguste Rodin’s lover. Though John met many leading personalities based in Paris before the war, she was drawn to a life of solitude and single-minded focus on her art. Taking a room in Meudon, a quiet suburb of Paris, in 1910, John converted to Catholicism in 1913, and paintings of nuns, church congregations, and interior scenes of her living quarters dominated her output. She exhibited in both London and Paris in group shows, including as a member of the New England Art Club and at the Salon d’Automne but her only solo exhibition during her lifetime was at the New Chenil Galleries, London, in 1926. Her last work was dated to 1933 and she died just after the outbreak of WWII in 1939. Gwen John’s work is held in major public collections including the Tate, the National Museum and Gallery, Cardiff, Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Significant posthumous retrospectives were held at Anthony D’Offay in 1976 and 1982, by the Arts Council in 1968, and alongside her brother Augustus John at Tate Britain in 2004-2005.

Coinciding with her conversion to Catholicism in the winter of 1912/1913, John became increasingly close to the Dominican Sisters of Charity at Meudon of the Congregation known as the Présentation de la Sainte Vierge de Tours. The Sisters commissioned her to produce a portrait of the founder of their Order, Marie Poussepin (1653-1744), and between 1915 and 1921 John painted seven portraits of Marie. John produced numerous series of nuns aside from these portraits of Marie – ‘Sleeping Nun’ is one of a series of eight, with other iterations in the collections of the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff and the National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh. Mary Taubman has argued that the title is almost certainly euphemistic and the nun is not asleep but rather on her deathbed. Taubman’s reasoning stands that John was commissioned by the Dominican Sisters to make other deathbed portraits - for example, a priest in 1920 – and thus it seems probable this work was a commission to commemorate a Sister’s passing.

John began ‘Sleeping Nun’ with a charcoal drawing, laying down hazy, light, and sparsely applied lines of black charcoal. Overlaid with delicate washes of gouache in tonally subtle shades of powder blue, white, and dark grey, the work is subtle in both line and colour, yet the medium of gouache imbues the work with substance and body. The composition focuses tightly on the nun – we see her as if from just below her feet so that she appears to us quite severely foreshortened. All extraneous background detail is eliminated by John: the nun seemingly hovers, unsupported by bed or chair. The formal intricacies presented by the nun’s garb preoccupy John in ‘Sleeping Nun’ - she once wrote, “a cat or a man it’s the same thing…it’s an affair of volumes.” Creases of the wide white sleeves of the nun’s robes, the extraordinary shape of her pointed headwear, the bulk of her body below the folds of a grey blanket, and the wrinkles of her robes gathered at the neck: details of form are realised with judicious economy of line.

John’s image of an aged nun poised between life and after-life speaks to the iconography of the assumption, particularly depictions of the assumption of the Virgin. Though the physical form remains on earth, the soul ascends, called to join Christ in heaven. Suspended literally in the picture, the nun also seems metaphorically lingering on the threshold between life and death. With her hands clasped together around her rosary beads and eyes closed in repose, she might already have transcended the material world.