Gwen John, "Autoportrait à la Lettre" (Self-Portrait with a letter) (c.1907–9), pencil and watercolor, Musée Rodin (all images courtesy Pallant House Gallery)

CHICHESTER, England — The New Woman. The feminist writer Sarah Grand coined the phrase in 1894; she was referring to the kind of independent-spirited woman whose presence was beginning to be felt in some of the literature of the 1890s. Male cartoonists made hay with such a notion, of course.

Gwen John, born in the small Welsh town of Haverfordwest in 1867, was such a creature. She had aspirations to be a painter. At the age of 19, she followed her older brother, Augustus, to London in pursuit of an art eduction, and she experienced for herself the kind of restrictions women were obliged to suffer. 

In the life class at the Slade, for example, men could draw nude women. For a woman, on the other hand, the sight of nakedness, and even the overt expression of desire, were discouraged. And to be a female life model at all was something that no middle-class woman would ever countenance.

Going out and about on the town, of course, was not to be done, either. You had to be in the company of a man. And serious work? Well, perhaps it would be better for a woman to sacrifice herself to the higher interests of family and leave the exploration of creativity to men, who had a much greater natural aptitude anyway. Such guff!

Gwen John, “Young Woman Holding a Black Cat” (c. 1920–25), oil on canvas, Tate Britain

When London’s Tate Gallery opened in 1897, it contained 249 works by men and five by women.

Gwen John set her face against all these absurdly restrictive practices, and the career-encompassing exhibition Gwen John: Art and Life in London and Paris makes clear immediately not only her independence of spirit, and the seriousness of her commitment to what she regarded as her life’s vocation, but also the nature and the quality of her dogged opposition: How she fought back, and won, in her own way.

And it is very much in her own way. Much of this show is composed of portraits, of herself and others, and often in rooms relatively sparsely furnished and otherwise unadorned — “simple” was always her preference. She does not show women as unserious, flirtatious temptresses. She is at the opposite end of the spectrum from the preposterously showy John Singer Sargent, who specialized in painting posy, over-dressed, privileged cream-puffs. Gwen John never prettifies or exaggerates. She shows a quality of restraint. Her sitters look at us directly, steadily, and often with a degree of self-absorption. Her paintings do not play with heightened effects of color. Their tonal range is usually subtle and relatively limited.    

In order to escape what she regarded as the vocation-withering life of London, she took herself off to Paris, for good, in 1904. (She died in France in 1939.) Once in Paris, she rented the first of what was to become a succession of modest rooms, often under the eaves. She met Rodin, and became his model and lover. Rodin’s drawings taught her a great deal about speed, fluency, and economy of line. The enigmatic Rilke, briefly Rodin’s secretary, indirectly tutored her in the art of a steadily soulful inwardness. 

The very opposite of brash, and yet always quietly self-assured, she developed in time into a major artist of a very singular stamp. 

Gwen John, “Japanese Doll” (1920s), oil on canvas, National Museum of Wales
Gwen John, “Dorelia in a Black Dress” (c. 1903–4), oil on canvas, Tate Britain
Gwen John, “Landscape at Tenby with Figures” (c. 1896/7), oil on board, Tenby Museum and Art Gallery Collection
Gwen John, “Woman Dressing” (c. 1907), gray wash and Chinese white on medium, slightly textured, brown wove paper, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
Gwen John, “La Chambre Sur la Cour” (c. 1907–8), oil on canvas, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Gwen John: Art and Life in London and Paris continues at Pallant House Gallery (8-9 North Pallant, Chichester, England) through October 8. The exhibition was curated by Alicia Foster in partnership with Pallant House Gallery.

Michael Glover is a Sheffield-born, Cambridge-educated, London-based poet and art critic, and poetry editor of The Tablet. He has written regularly for the Independent, the Times, the Financial Times,...