Gwen John

The Nun

c.1915–21

Medium
Oil paint on board
Dimensions
Frame: 865 x 600 x 70 mm
support: 707 x 446 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Purchased 1940
Reference
N05162

Display caption

Gwen John, who was received into the Roman Catholic church in 1913, painted many pictures of nuns. She became involved with the nuns at the Convent at Meudon near Paris, where she lived. She was asked to paint an imaginary portrait of their foundress Mere Poussepin, which she copied, taking two years to do so, from a prayer card. John also painted portraits of several nuns from the Convent, including this one of an unknown young woman. They sat for John, but were posed in the same way as Mere Poussepin appears in the prayer card. There was an orphanage near by that was part of the Convent, and John painted many watercolours of the children there.

Gallery label, August 2004

Catalogue entry

N05162 THE NUN c. 1920–30
 
Not inscribed.
Canvas, 27×17 (68×43).
Purchased from the Matthiesen Gallery (Knapping Fund) 1940.
Coll: As for No.5152.
Repr: Burlington Magazine, LXXXI, 1942, p.240, pl.3a.

This is one of several pictures of nuns painted by Gwen John. According to a letter from Sister Madeleine de la Présentation (8 August 1957) Gwen John became interested in the Sisters of the Presentation and made sketches of them in church. She was attracted by their habit, but appears to have painted them in their original habit which differed from that worn in her day. It is not possible to identify the nuns who sat for her. She painted a number of pictures of the Foundress, Mère Poussepin, either from an original contemporary painting in the convent, or, more probably, from the devotional prints made from it. At the time of her baptism into the Catholic Church, c. 1913, she used to come to the convent for religious instruction, and in gratitude for this she used to make small paintings which were sold for the benefit of the orphans. Besides the portraits of Mère Poussepin other pictures of nuns painted by Gwen John are in the following Collections: National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne (very similar to N05162 in composition), Edward Le Bas, and Michel Salaman.

Published in:
Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, London 1964, I