Thursday, January 03, 2008

The Nun

Gwen John (1876 - 1939)
Mère Poussepin seated at a Table
Oil on canvas
88.3 x 65.4 cm
National Museum of Wales, Cardiff

Gwen John (1876 - 1939)
The Nun
Oil on board
Height (cm) : 56 x Width (cm) : 35.2
Swansea Museum, Swansea, Wales

John`s younger brother was the more famous artist, Augustus John.

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.

Gwen John never heard such public praise in her lifetime. She lived much of it in painful seclusion in France, rarely showing her work, caring little for outside opinion.

Her subjects were simple ones: a woman holding a cat, an empty room, a vase of flowers. Her pale colors and still figures gave the pictures a quiet, reticent look. But there was nothing vague or misty about them. All had been drawn with a strong, accurate hand.

Outwardly, Gwen John was as reticent as her painting. Inwardly, her life was one of intense feeling, rebellion and search. She was a spinster who became the mistress of Sculptor Auguste Rodin, an agnostic who turned to the Roman Catholic Church.

With her brother, Gwen studied at the Slade School of Art (1895-98). She worked briefly in Paris with James Whistler and began to exhibit her work in London in 1899.

In 1910 she moved to a flat in Meudon outside Paris. She had a long and obsessive love affair with Rodin in Paris until his death. And even after she entered the Roman Catholic Church she clung to Rodin for love and comfort. "My heart is like a sea which has little sad waves," she wrote. "But every ninth wave is big and happy."

In October 1912 she began instruction in Roman Catholicism and was received into the Church the following year.

In 1913 a nearby convent (the Order of the Sisters of Charity of the Holy Virgin of Tours) commissioned Gwen to paint a portrait of their 17th century founder, Mère Poussepin (1653-1744) from a likeness on a prayer-card in turn, derived from an eighteenth-century oil painting.

She used as her models two nuns who adopted the posture of Mère Poussepin.

It was to be the first of several similar paintings, since the nuns decided they would like one for each room in the convent and it set a precedent for Gwen's habit of making several variants of the same subject.She worked on all the versions concurrently, tiring herself out over this for the next seven years

Gwen found the work difficult and did not complete the first painting for seven years.

About this time Gwen wrote: 'I don't live when I spend time without thought'.

Gwen used non-professional 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 emphasis is on quiet thoughtfulness and introspection. In them she expressed what she described to her friend Ursula Tyrwhitt as 'a more interior life'

In the 1920s Gwen John sought the spiritual counsel of the Maritains.

She had a correspondence with the Jesuit Father Martin D'Arcy. It was his book, The Mass and the Redemption which peaked her theological interest and moved her to write him. He reciprocated in two letters.

For more about Gwen John and her Catholicism, see James Sulllivan: Gwen John- Art and Faith in the Shadows CRISIS, Sep. 1995