One hundred and eighteen

Self-Portrait

1902 by Gwen John
Tate

Gwen John was born in Wales and after a fairly turbulent childhood moved to London to study at the Slade School of Art; she then moved to Paris where she met Rodin, among other prominent art figures, who would become her long-term lover. This self-portrait was painted before her time in Paris, probably just after she had graduated, and is reflective of her demeanour, which though eccentric was also quiet. She paints her face with the restraint her expression itself seems to give; the painting is subtle, flat, but realist nonetheless, and careful not to be dramatically expressive. It is a concealment of personality, deception on the part of the sitter and in this case the artist; she stares at us, aware of just what she gives and what she chooses to hide. The light in this painting mirrors this subtlety of execution; the whole image is bathed in an illuminative glow, accumulating in the pale white of her face. The light has an interesting quality, it is slightly un-natural; far from daylight it conveys a sense of artificiality, supported by the post-Impressionist style of painting. John’s style is akin to the Bloomsbury Group’s, slightly surreal despite the realist approach to subject, probably gained at Slade where Duncan Grant also studied. The background is similar in approach, plain in its simplicity but quietly moving with light and subtle tone, presenting an atmospheric but not distracting backdrop to Gwen’s face. John’s painting is remarkably honest, a telling portrayal for a self-portrait in what she seeks to hide; it is subtle in expression yet attention grabbing, mirrored in the bright red of her shirt.

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