Bridging the Gap: Creativity vs Domesticity

My research for the next EAST exhibition focuses on female artists and in particular Gwen John (1876-1939) and her peers, who were limited by societal norms as well as the dominance of patriarchal institutions such as the Royal Academy, where, although women were allowed to exhibit their work, there were very few opportunities for professional female artists.

Gwen John self-portrait (licence from the National Portrait Gallery website

My initial attraction to the artist Gwen John was her still life and interior paintings rather than her female portraits, I like the quiet, subdued quality of her paintings and her limited colour palette (she did not identify with any artistic movement).  She often painted her own sparsely furnished rooms located in the outskirts of Paris (Montparnasse) where she lived permanently after 1903.

John, Gwen; Interior; Manchester Art Gallery;

I also like the underlying meaning of her paintings implied by the placement of objects and furniture in the composition.  I feel this creates a good connection to my current work where I have looked at still life and the placement of objects in a half indoor, half outdoor world thereby creating a narrative.

Gwen John was born in 1876 in Haverfordwest in Wales.  At the age of 19 she attended the Slade School of Art (1895 to 1898) which had been set up in 1871 and was the first art school to provide an equal art education for women to that received by men. However, once the female students had left the supportive atmosphere of the Slade they were faced with the same societal prejudices many female artists experienced and their expectations to be able to have a successful career were severely curtailed.

After her time at the Slade Gwen John studied under James Abbot McNeill Whistler in Paris and moved to France permanently in 1903 where she soon began a passionate affair with the sculptor Auguste Rodin for whom she modelled – he was 36 years older than her and the affair did not last.   She became so obsessed with her affair with Rodin that she almost gave up painting.  However, later she reflected in a letter to a friend that “I think to do beautiful pictures we ought to be free from family conventions and ties…..” and in not marrying and having children she was able to pursue her artistic career on her own terms, unlike many of her female friends.

Below are a few images from my sketchbook as part of my research.

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