Gwen John: ‘It’s tone that matters’ Part 2

Neil Lebeter

This is the second part of a look at some of Gwen John’s work in the Amgueddfa Cymru collection. Part one looked at how the largest collection of Gwen John works in the world came together as well as an important example of her early painting technique.

From the mid-1910s onwards, we see this technique change quite dramatically. John moves almost exclusively to female portraits and to applying paint much more sparingly, and with no upper layers or varnishes. Brush strokes become visible and compositions are flatter and less smooth. Again, we see John shift with the artistic movements around her as other artists in Europe were working with similar techniques.

John’s portraits are perhaps what she is best known for. There is something intangible about the mood that these works impart; they are highly emotive, yet elusive. What really highlights John’s genius is how complex these compositions are; how technique is the foundation for the feeling that these portraits exude.

A good way of highlighting this is to look at an unfinished work…

Study of a Seated Nude Girl (c. 1920s)

Study of a Seated Nude Girl (c.1920s)
Oil on canvas
32.4 x 24.1 cm

The flatness and tonal harmony of John’s portraits has been discussed often – how the sitter and background often blend together so that they appear as the same surface. What is extraordinary about the way that John worked was that she painted from the edges - often with no preparatory sketching. She would start at a corner of the canvas and work inwards, as we can see here with this work. The facial features become almost secondary in the construction of the painting, as they are painted last, or not at all in this case. Any painters out there will appreciate how hard this is to do – the spatial awareness to be able to form a cohesive work by starting at its extremity is extraordinarily difficult. Also, what this does is heighten the sense that background and sitter are the same thing – the figure, and particularly the facial features, are not given any particular importance over the rest of the structure of the painting.

On the reverse of this painting is another work of the same sitter, clothed this time, and nearer completion. You can see that the features are almost the last part of the painting to be worked on.

Girl in Blue Dress (c. 1914-15)

Girl in Blue Dress (c. 1914-15)
Oil on canvas
41.8 x W 34.5 cm

We’re now going to come back to Girl in a Blue Dress. From 1915 onwards John’s work changed and this is one of the earliest examples of this dry technique. This is an extraordinary painting and is one of the most popular works in the Museum.

Here John applies a chalk and animal glue ground which contains small bubbles made as the warm glue and chalk are stirred together; creating a textured surface to the canvas. This ground layer and the subsequent oil paint layers are both applied very dryly and thinly, with brush marks left visible.

In these details the brown paint layers can be seen to have skipped over the white ground, leaving much of the ground showing through. This gives the work the appearance of a fading fresco and adds to the sense of fragility of the sitter. The paint is applied so dryly and so evenly to both background and sitter, that they appear the same – they blend into one surface.

Looking at the painting in differing lights shows us some more interesting things.

Light shone from the side shows how uneven the canvas is and very different from a smooth, commercially prepared canvas. This is almost certainly deliberate, adding to that sense of texture.

Infra-red light shows a small amount of preparatory sketch work, outlining the basic elements of the composition prior to painting.

We also know that John came back to rework this painting, as shown here under UV light. This shows that she made changes with a white paint containing more zinc, which shows up under UV. Even as reworking, these are still the slightest of touches.

Most extraordinary though is this…

Shining light through the back of the canvas shows just how little paint has been applied. This highlights John’s skill to produce a work so affecting without really using any paint at all, there’s barely anything there.

little interior

The Little Interior (1926)
Oil on canvas
Bequeathed by Gaynor Cemlyn-Jones, 2003
22.2 x 27.3 cm

This work from 1926 shows the interior of John’s home in the Paris suburbs and was one of the paintings shown at John’s only solo exhibition held during her lifetime. It shows the sparsest use of colour, predominantly subtle tonal differences of the background with a small focal point of the teapot at the centre of the canvas.

After the horrors of the First World War, many artists rejected avant-garde ideas – returning to more traditional approaches to art. Futurism and Vorticism, for example, which celebrated technology and automation prior to the War, were abandoned as those very things were key contributors to the slaughter. Known as the ‘Return to Order’ this saw artists such as Picasso and Braque largely abandon Cubism for more traditional methods. There was a resurgence of classicism, of order and realism in painting. Alicia Foster writes in her biography of Gwen John that her work seen through the prism of the ‘Call to Order’ is complex, but where John’s work chimes with the movement is through the precise measurement and organisation of colour – as we can see here with The Little Interior.

John described using an extremely complicated numbered disc which denoted colour and tone relationships to any other colour and tone. She also developed her own notation system to sketch out and record planned compositions. This ‘code’ has proved incredibly difficult to crack and her notes have a poetic quality that, while beautiful, makes decoding even harder. For example, what colour do you think this is? ‘April faded pansies on the sands at night’

As well as colour notes, Gwen used a numbering system. She made rapid sketches of everything around her – objects in her room, places she went to, people on trains and in church. This numbering along with colour notations were a way for her to remember the tones or colours of the subjects she’d captured in pencil and charcoal.

She then later reworked the images in watercolour, gouache and sometimes oil, experimenting with the composition and colours.

Figure in Church

Figure in Church
Gouache on paper
16.7 x 12.3cm

From around 1913, John converted to Catholicism. Her faith would become hugely important to her and described herself as ‘God’s little artist’. From this point, many of her drawings are of people in church – largely shown from the side or the back.

In Figure in Church, the colour of the dress is a thinner wash of the same colour as the hat and the hair colour is a mixture of the background and the hat. This is key to her harmonious use of colour – that everything is blended together. Simplicity does not necessarily mean that something is simple.

With thanks to Amgueddfa Cymru colleagues past and present from whose research this blog post has been based; particularly David Fraser Jenkins, Beth McIntyre, Kate Lowry and Oliver Fairclough. Moreover, Alicia Foster’s short biography, published by Tate, is an excellent overview and reappraisal of important aspects of John’s career.

Comments (3)

31 December 2021, 05:21
Excellent presentation -- though one yearns to see more of Gwen John"s works. MORE PLEASE!
Showing the 'forensic' evidence of her technique heightens our appreciation of her skill and intent. MORE PLEASE!
I hope you can decipher her 'numeric color coding'. That's another aspect of her artistry that's interesting. Many artists use a personal 'shorthand' to notate sketches with colors including me. Hers seems to be especially precise (and complex?). Very interesting.
Thanks for this #1 & #2 --- MORE PLEASE! {;>)
8 November 2021, 09:40
Gwen John’s drawings are of rare quality, as good as Degas. Her painting , from the description above seems to move from the edges of the canvas to the all over. Like Morandi she seems to move effortlessly from this surface , colour / tonal concentration to introducing the drawn line in paint in a seamless way. You see this in the faces but also the folds of clothes where the surface morphs into a line or an edge. She is from an earlier age than Morandi but I see parallels between them. Both painters of genius
Gwen Williams
8 July 2020, 12:37
Absolutely fascinating insight into the way Gwen John worked - many thanks Neil
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