Augustus John OM

Woman Smiling


Augustus John OM 1878–1961
Oil paint on canvas
Frame: 2210 × 1238 × 85 mm
support: 1960 × 982 mm
Presented by the Contemporary Art Society 1917

Display caption

This portrait is of John’s partner Dorelia McNeill. She is shown wearing a dress she designed herself, with a high waist and long skirt. McNeill’s style was influenced by Romany culture and she led a fashion for bohemian costume. John painted the work for the annual exhibition, ‘Fair Women’, organised by the International Society. The exhibition included modern portraits alongside older works by well-established painters. Reviewers compared John’s picture to works by Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641) and Édouard Manet (1832-1883). John was one of the most highly regarded British artists of his day.

Gallery label, October 2020

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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

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