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Curator Diary - Gwen John in Paris by Pat Douthwaite

25 Mar 2020

In our first Curator Diary, Dr Abi Shapiro, Assistant Curator at The Hepworth Wakefield, takes us through one of her favourite paintings in our collection.

I love this painting because it is a portrait of one of my favourite artists, Gwen John, made by another of my favourite artists, Pat Douthwaite. John was a Welsh artist, who in 1898 at only 22 years old, moved to Paris to study art with the painter John Abbott McNeill Whistler. It would have been a pretty rebellious move at the end of the 19th century for such a young woman to go abroad to pursue a career in painting, but the risk paid off and John went on to become a successful painter.

In this painting, ‘Gwen John in Paris’, Douthwaite captures something of the young John’s defiant spirit: she appears animated, perhaps dancing, dressed in her Parisian finery wearing an absurdly oversized hat covering most of her face except for her red lips, which clench a glowing cigarette. I love the way both hat and artist seem to be positively glowing with energy! I particularly like how Douthwaite hones in on details such as the spiky tuft of hair protruding from John’s armpit – to my contemporary eye, this makes John appear all the more deliciously radical and feminist.

Douthwaite was a strong woman too. A self-taught Scottish artist who took up painting much later in life after a career as a dancer, Douthwaite often painted portraits of heroic women including Mary Queen of Scots and the pioneering aviator Amy Johnson. Douthwaite noted: ‘I identify psychologically with the person I am painting – I become her’.

In her lasting fascination with John, Douthwaite made 12 works about the Welsh artist. Both John and Douthwaite followed their own paths despite societal norms. This painting reminds me of the powerful transmission of women’s legacies across generations.

You can explore other highlights from our collection of modern and contemporary British art here.