Gwen John (22 June 1876 – 18 September 1939) was a Welsh artist often cited as a classical example of a woman artist in a male-dominated environment. The focus has frequently been invested in her private life, focusing on her isolation and personal relationships. During 1895 to 1898, John studied at the Slade School of Art alongside her brother Augustus. The Slade School was said to welcome women students with a degree of equality, allowing her to make an independent career. In 1898 John made her first visit to Paris where she studied under James McNeill Whistler at the Académie Carmen. John settled in Paris in 1904, painting three-quarter length portraits of young women and girls seated in bare domestic interiors. The subjects are often slightly off-centre or leaning, half-way between sitting and standing. Distinct details of dress or background are obscure, with the unity of surface and depth acting as the principle harmonizing components of the paintings. Features of her work such as extreme delicacy of coloring were also often taken as ‘feminine’ yet; as David Fraser Jenkins argues they could also apply to an artist such as Seurat with no such concentration on gender.
It has been argued that John had no interest in political issues and her withdrawal from society signified a withdrawal from the avant-garde groups invested in the expressing experiences of modernity. Suzi Gablick argues that her work expresses, “a dedicated concentration, a private incandescence of spirit that is enthralling.” However, during her years in Paris she met many of the celebrated artistic personalities of her time such as Matisse, Picasso and Rainer Maria Rilke and had an affair with the sculptor Rodin. John exhibited in Paris in 1919 at the Salon d’Automne yet only had one solo exhibition during her lifetime, in London in 1926. As David Peters Corbett states, she was the artist “responsible for defining a poetics of the privatisation of modernity.”
Gwen John’s Nude Girl is a three-quarter length portrait of a young girl in what appears to be a domestic interior. The composition of this piece is stark in its simplicity; the figure dominates the entire canvas in front of a plain background. This minimal setting gives no indication of biographical details or context, directing the attention solely on to the naked body and the character of the model Fenella Lovell. According to Carol Duncan, the representation of the nude female body during John’s lifetime was not ideologically neutral, but instead “when an artist had some new or major artistic statement to make, when he wanted to authenticate to himself or others his identity as an artist, or when he wanted to get back to “basics” he turned to the nude.”
John’s model looks directly into the eyes of the spectator; her features are distinctive and individualistic. This gaze aligns the spectator to the position of the artist meaning we become involved in a human exchange. We acknowledge her humanity, her sociability, her personality. Her back is upright and dominant against the chair, instead of lying down submissively, yet her shoulders are hunched slightly inwards, her hands are clasped together defensively and placed across her body in front of her crotch, acting as a direct barrier. The hand also pins down the piece of fabric, as if she is preventing it from falling down entirely. This fabric appears transitional, between modesty and exposure. It makes the figure look vulnerable and uncertain, caught between two contradictory gestures.
The effect is paradoxical, the figure is both monumental and static, but her movements are vulnerable and defensive. This emotional aspect is highlighted by the de-saturated tonal colours and textural brushstrokes, which are used as a way of expressing the volume of the body rather than as a mode of self-expression. The more you look at this portrait, the more unsettling and challenging it becomes; a potential refusal of the female nude body as an ideological site of masculine sexuality.