Illustrated companion

This is one of a pair of pictures of the same model painted in Paris about 1909-10. In the other ('Girl with Bare Shoulders', Museum of Modern Art, New York) the sitter is in an almost identical pose but clothed, in an off-the-shoulder dress. However, she is no longer wearing the pendant present in the nude.

Gwen John here paints a human being with an intimacy, objectivity and grasp of the physical reality of the body, unprecedented in English painting, although such qualities have surfaced since, notably in the figure painting of Stanley Spencer and Lucian Freud.

It may have helped that she appears thoroughly to have disliked the model, a young woman named Fenella Lovell whom Gwen John knew in Paris and employed on a professional basis. Gwen wrote to her friend Ursula Tyrwhitt in September 1909: 'I have not been able to paint much, only lately & I have done quite quickly the portrait of Fenella ... I think it will be good ... no one will want to buy her portrait do you think so? It was rather foolish of me to begin it but I meant to do others at the same time. I shall be glad when it is finished, it is a great strain doing Fenella. It is a pretty little face but she is dreadful'. The reference here is presumably to the clothed portrait, but Gwen clearly intended doing more than one, and in May 1910 she wrote again to Ursula complaining at length about Fenella, and adding 'Why I want to send two paintings is because I may then sell them & then I shall pay her what I owe her and never see her again'. At least one, and possibly both, paintings were exhibited at the NEAC in 1910 and the following year the nude was presented to the Contemporary Art Society who presented it to the Tate Gallery in 1917.

In 1921 Gwen John's friend Nona Watkins wrote to her after seeing the nude in the Tate: 'The little "Nude Girl" is quite exquisite in its subtle simplicity - a gem of the first water - rare in its conception, wonderfully choice in treatment - felt I must write to you after seeing what depths you can feel.'

Part of the power of this picture and its companion comes from undoubted slight elements of distortion in the painting of the figure. This was noted by the painter Wyndham Lewis in The Listener in 1946: '[they] show the figure of a woman strained up ... We are astonished by the anguished rigidity of the pose ...' He also compared them with Francisco Goyas famous pair of portraits of the same woman clothed and naked: 'Indeed, these two pictures, like the "Maja Vestida" and the "Maja Desnuda", are the Woman clothed and unclothed.' Lewis went further, to suggest a symbolic or allegorical meaning: 'But with the one here it is a revulsion from her nakedness - an Eve after the Fall.' This is a poetic fantasy, of course, but there is no doubt that the painting, in its unblinking realism, possibly fuelled by the artist's dislike of the sitter, is somewhat puritanical in effect.

Published in:
Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, Tate Gallery, London, revised edition 1991, p.101