Gwen John first trained as an artist in Britain, but moved to France permanently in 1903, even refusing to return to Britain during World War I. By 1911 John was living in Meudon, about ten kilometres south-west of Paris, where she painted this work. It is one of a group of finished portraits and studies from around 1912 to 1919 that she made of members of the Dominican Order of the Sisters of Charity. John had met the order’s Mother Superior, and promised to paint a portrait of the foundress of the Sisters of Charity, Mère Poussepin (1653–1744). At the same time, John painted a number of the nuns currently living at Meudon. This is one of several portraits that John painted of Sister Marie Céline.
John’s paintings were principally devoted to the single figure, usually portraits of women; and this repetition gave her a tremendous facility to express the character and personality of her subjects. Her compositions are simple and austere, containing few distracting elements beyond the solitary sitter being portrayed. A perfectionist, she was meticulous in her working methods, making dozens of studies for each painting. Her portrait of Mère Poussepin, for example, took more than six years to complete. The nun also exemplifies John’s preferred painting technique, in which she applied the paint in dabs, akin to the pointillist method introduced by the French Neo-Impressionists in the late 1880s. She also worked with fairly dry paint, which gives her work a chalky appearance, like that of a fresco.
Text by Laurie Benson from 20th century painting and sculpture in the international collections of the National Gallery of Victoria, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2003, p. 11.