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Gwen John, 1876–1939, British

Study of a Nun

Former Title(s):

Study of a Nun, Seated at a Table

ca. 1915
Oil on board laid to panel
Support (PTG): 23 15/16 x 15 15/16 inches (60.8 x 40.5 cm)
Credit Line:
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
Copyright Status:
Copyright Information
Accession Number:
Paintings and Sculpture
Subject Terms:
apron (main garment) | book | brushstrokes | figure study | furniture | habit | nun | prayer | religious | study (visual work) | window
Not on view
IIIF Manifest:

Gwen John trained at the Slade School of Fine Art in London from 1895 to 1898, a school noted for its progressive teaching and acceptance of female students. She moved to Paris in 1903, where she remained for the rest of her life. A reserved but tenacious personality, she formed few but intense relationships, including with the poet Rainer Rilke and sculptor Auguste Rodin, for whom she served as the model for his unfinished monument to Whistler. She converted to Catholicism in 1913 during a time of intense anticlericalism from France’s Third Republic. Portraits of nuns featured regularly in her studies of the life in and around the convent of the Dominican Sisters of Charity in Meudon, the suburb of Paris where she lived.

Gallery label for installation of YCBA collection, 2020

Gwen John became a Roman Catholic in 1913, two years after she moved into lodgings above a house in the rue Terre Neuve in Meudon, about twelve miles outside Paris. She had initially admired the habits worn by the Sisters of Charity, who ran a local orphanage, and undertook to paint for the Mother Superior a posthumous portrait of the foundress of the order, Mère Poussepin, based on an image on the back of a prayer card. Not surprisingly, she found the task difficult. Nevertheless, the episode is important because subsequently it seems that Gwen John continued to be interested not so much in creating portraits of individual nuns, but in evoking something of the condition, the asceticism, and remoteness of religious life. She engaged professional artists' models to pose for her nun pictures, probably because the sisters were either unwilling or not allowed to sit for portraits.

Gallery label for installation of YCBA collection, 2010

Cecily Langdale, Gwen John : With a Catalogue Raisonne of the Paintings and a Selection of the Drawings, , Yale University Press, New Haven, 1987, pp. 51, 59, 60.., No. 43, pl. 199, NJ18 J594 A12 L25 (YCBA)

Paul Mellon's Legacy, a passion for British art. [large print labels] , Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 2007, v. 1, N5220 M552 +P381 2007, Mellon Shelf (YCBA)

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