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"I don't live when I spend time without thought." – Gwen John
This selection of portraits of women in contemplative or introspective poses was shown together in the Hugh Lane Gallery earlier in 2020. As many of us spend time confined to our homes during the COVID-19 pandemic, we may experience a forced period of introspection ourselves, so it seems timely to revisit these works.
The women are depicted in quiet moments of reflection, in closed interior spaces. This mood is enhanced by the use of muted tones in many of the works. The sparsity of the surroundings frequently adds to the sense of stillness.
While the gallery contains a significant collection of portraits of notable figures, the subjects of these portraits and their life stories remain unknown. This raises questions as to the relationship between the artists and the sitters. Were they friends? Was the model paid? Or was the artist commissioned by the sitter? To what extent does gender, race and class affect how we see these figures? Are they portraits of real or idealised women, or studies of psychological states?
Titles in some cases hint at a narrative – by way of an action (Woman Meditating) or a location (Adieu Paris). Others offer more general descriptions leaving the viewer to speculate on the sitter’s history and circumstances.
In La Toilette by the 19th century French artist Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, a private, intimate moment between two women is made public. The two figures are placed in a simple uncluttered space, with little depth, reminiscent of the Italian Primitive wall paintings that the artist admired. The theme of a woman at her toilette – in the process of grooming and dressing – was one that appealed to Puvis de Chavannes as well as other artists such as Edgar Degas and Berthe Morisot.
Renowned for his landscape paintings, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot painted a number of half-length studies of women in landscape settings; however in Woman Meditating the figure is set against a plain background. The painting was donated by the Women’s Picture League, a Dublin organisation founded in 1904 in support of Hugh Lane and the establishment of this Gallery and also to encourage art education for women.
The 19th century French painting of an African woman is something of a mystery. African models were a rarity in 19th century European painting and despite much research this sitter remains unknown. She appears deep in thought, her eyes averted from the viewer. Apart from her colourful headscarf, she is naked with her arms crossed over her torso. The identity of the painter is also unknown. It had previously been thought to be Eugène Fromentin, Eugène Delacroix or Marie-Guillemine Benoist.
Gwen John’s Study of a Young Girl is characteristic of the Welsh artist's enigmatic studies of solitary girls and women. Indeed, this unidentified sitter appears in over 50 portraits by John, all painted in her small studio in Paris between the late 1910s and the early 1920s. She described her process: “I paint a good deal, but I don’t often get a picture done – that requires, for me, a very long time of a quiet mind…” That sense of a “quiet mind” is conveyed through the harmonious, muted tones and brushstrokes that unify the surface of the painting.
The Girl in White by Grace Henry is somewhat unusual in this artist’s oeuvre as she is known for her strong use of colour. No doubt influenced by Henry’s studies under James McNeill Whistler in Paris, The Girl in White is painted in harmonies of white with subtle hints of pink and green. The sitter’s face and hair stands out from the delicately painted geometric background and flowing dress. Her relaxed pose enhances the harmonious composition.
The title of the painting by Neapolitan artist Antonio Mancini, Adieu Paris, suggests the sitter is leaving Paris. An alternative title, The Customs, indicates that she is waiting at a customs office. She sits surrounded by her bags, some of which have been opened as if subject to an inspection. Mancini himself spent time in Paris in 1875 and 1877 before returning to Rome and this painting may reflect his own decision not to stay in the French capital.
The Spanish painter Raimundo de Madrazo y Garreta, built a successful career as a portraitist, particularly of elegantly dressed women. The unidentified woman in the Portrait of a Lady sits with downcast eyes against a decorative background. As her dress was left unfinished, this work is possibly a study for a larger portrait.
While these paintings, all modest in size, were created under different circumstances in the 19th and early 20th centuries, they continue to offer viewers today moments of reflection.