Augustus John OM

Woman Smiling

1908–9

On display at Tate Britain

Medium
Oil paint on canvas
Dimensions
Frame: 2210 x 1238 x 85 mm
support: 1960 x 982 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Presented by the Contemporary Art Society 1917
Reference
N03171

Display caption

Augustus John, once the most highly-regarded English artist of his day, painted this jaunty portrait of his second partner, Dorelia McNeill, for the annual exhibition, ‘Fair Women’ organised by the International Society. These exhibitions included old masters as well as modern portraits, and reviewers compared John’s picture to works by van Dyck and Manet. McNeill designed her own dress with high waist and long skirt and set a fashion for bohemian costume. This portrait was the first purchase by the Contemporary Art Society, although it was not allocated to Tate until 1917. Roger Fry dubbed it a ‘gypsy Gioconda‘, eliding McNeill’s Romany costume with the ‘Mona Lisa‘.

Gallery label, February 2016

Catalogue entry

N03171 THE SMILING WOMAN c. 1908
 
Not inscribed.
Canvas, 77×38 (196×97).
Presented by the Contemporary Art Society 1917.
Coll: Dr C. Bakker 1909; C.A.S. 1910.
Exh: International Society, Fair Women, New Gallery, February–March 1909 (181); C.A.S., Loan Collection of Modern Paintings, Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle, October 1912 (158); C.A.S., First Public Exhibition in London, Goupil Gallery, April 1913 (21); C.A.S., Purchases and Gifts, 53 Grosvenor Street, June 1914 (3); C.A.S., Modern Paintings, Belfast, November 1914 (13).
Lit: Roger Fry, ‘The Exhibition of Fair Women’ in Burlington Magazine, XV, 1909, p.17; C. J. Holmes, ‘Two Modern Pictures’ in ibid., p. 81, repr. p. 80; Earp, n.d., pp.60–2, repr. as frontispiece (in colour); William Rothenstein, Men and Memories 1900–1922, 1932, pp.83–4.
Repr: Art Journal, 1909, p. 118; Sir Joseph Duveen, Thirty Years of British Art, 1930, frontispiece (in colour).

The subject of this painting is Dorelia, the artist's second wife. Hitherto John had been better known as a draughtsman and opinions differed about the quality of ‘Merikili’ (considered today as the artist's first important oil painting) when it was first exhibited. Contemporary opinion, on the other hand, was more sure about the merits of ‘The Smiling Woman’, and from what can be gleaned from the criticism of the day it would seem that this picture was considered John's first important essay in oil paint. ‘Here at last’, wrote Roger Fry, ‘Mr John has “arrived” in painting as definitely as he has long ago done in his drawings.’ Lawrence Binyon in the Saturday Review, 6 March 1909, pp.299–300, remarked ‘“Woman Smiling” is a title which will hardly prepare a nervous public for a large and singular full length portrait by Mr John. This is going to be a classic one day, I do not doubt; meanwhile everyone will call it ugly. The picture has a formidable sense of personality which makes nearly everything else in the room look a little weak.’

Sir William Rothenstein wrote that the picture cost the original purchaser (presumably Dr Bakker) sixty pounds. It was the first painting to be bought by the Contemporary Art Society.

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