Welsh-born artist Gwen John moved permanently to France in 1904 at the age of twenty-eight, even declining to return to Britain during the perilous years of the First World War. She eked out a living modelling for artists and painting, exhibiting intermittently in London and Paris. In 1910 the American collector John Quinn became her patron, selecting works in return for an annual allowance.1Judith Zilczer, ‘The noble buyer’: John Quinn, Patron of the Avant-Garde, Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, DC, 1978.
By 1911, she was living in Meudon, about ten kilometres south-west of Paris, when she painted The nun, c. 1915–1920. The work belongs to a group of portraits and studies that John made of members of the Catholic Dominican Order of the Sisters of Charity in Meudon, during the years 1913 to 1920.2Cecily Langdale, Gwen John: with a Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings and a Selection of the Drawings, Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art by Yale University Press, New Haven, 1987, nos 38–48, 53–7, pp. 146–52. She became close to the Order soon after moving to Meudon, which may also have influenced her conversion to Catholicism in 1913. In the same year she promised the Mother Superior of the Order that she would create one or more portraits of its foundress, Mère Poussepin (1653–1744).
Several versions of the finished portrait exist, with the composition and the likeness of the figure being predominately based on an engraving of Mère Poussepin by an unknown artist, which was printed on a prayer card in 1911.3ibid. p. 146. The prayer card shows Poussepin sitting at a table with her hands crossed and rested on closed books. In John’s paintings, she introduced few compositional variations, such as the occasional inclusion of a flower on the table, or an indistinguishable picture hanging in the background. In one version, Mère Poussepin, c. 1920 (Southampton City Art Gallery, UK), she has eliminated the table altogether. John’s artistic process seems to have necessitated her also using live models, rather than relying solely on the existing image.
The nun is among a group of no fewer than eight known works portraying the same woman, presumably a member of the Order. Around 1940 the sitter was identified as Sister Marie Céline, although this name only became associated with this group of works in 1940 and may not be correct.4ibid. p. 148. The version to which Sister Marie Céline’s name became associated with is also in Australia, in the Carrick Hill Trust Collection, South Australia. Due to the composition of the work and style of the nun’s habit being so close to John’s paintings of Mère Poussepin, it is questionable if they were intended to be seen as portraits in their own right. John more likely used them as finished studies culminating in the portraits of Mère Poussepin. As with all of John’s paintings, colour, tone and texture are her principal means of expression, elements that she found to be challenging and time-consuming to perfect.
With only one known exception in her entire oeuvre, Interior with figures, c. 1898–1899 (National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne), John only ever painted the single figure. She exclusively painted women or children, and this reiteration gave her a tremendous facility to express the character and personality she wished to draw from her subjects. Her compositions are simple and austere, containing few distracting elements beyond the solitary sitter. She was obsessive and painstaking in her working methods, making dozens of studies for each painting. It took approximately six years, working on multiple versions, before she felt confident enough to submit a portrait of Mère Poussepin to the Order.5Susan Chitty, Gwen John, 1876–1939, Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1981, p. 132. Over this long gestation, John complained to friends that she wrestled hard with this image, balancing her own expectations and that of the Sisters. She struggled most of all with working on a relatively large painting, much bigger than she was accustomed to producing.6T. Batchelor et al., Gwen John and Augustus John, Tate Publishing, London, 2004, p. 137.
The nun exemplifies her fastidious approach, as of the eight known versions it is difficult to assume which one she was most satisfied with. John exhibited and sold only one version during her lifetime, to John Quinn, and perhaps another, which is coincidentally also in Australia, in the Carrick Hill Trust Collection, South Australia. The NGV painting is among the six versions that were still with John when she passed away in 1939. This could suggest a personal attachment to this image rather than having created the work to be shared with the public, the sitter and other members of the Order. It was acquired by Professor Randolph Schwabe, Slade Professor of Fine Art at University College, London, before coming to the NGV in 1947.
Laurie Benson, Curator, International Art, National Gallery of Victoria
Judith Zilczer, ‘The noble buyer’: John Quinn, Patron of the Avant-Garde, Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, DC, 1978.
Cecily Langdale, Gwen John: with a Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings and a Selection of the Drawings, Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art by Yale University Press, New Haven, 1987, nos 38–48, 53–7, pp. 146–52.
ibid. p. 146.
ibid. p. 148. The version to which Sister Marie Céline’s name became associated with is also in Australia, in the Carrick Hill Trust Collection, South Australia.
Susan Chitty, Gwen John, 1876–1939, Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1981, p. 132.
T. Batchelor et al., Gwen John and Augustus John, Tate Publishing, London, 2004, p. 137.