A group of recently rediscovered watercolors by British painter Gwen John (1876–1939) are on exhibit in the 18th-Century Window of the Main Gallery at Firestone Library from Monday, Nov. 21, through Dec. 31, 2011.
Due to research by Professor Anna Gruetzner Robins, of the University of Reading in the United Kingdom, two albums containing 23 unsigned watercolors have been identified as the work of John. The albums are in the extensive papers of the British poet and critic Arthur Symons (1865–1945), preserved in the Manuscripts Division, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library.
John was the sister of British artist Augustus John (1878–1961) and the one-time lover and model of French sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840–1917). She is now recognized as one of the most important painters of her generation. Made during the artist's productive years, beginning in 1917, many of the watercolors depict nuns, women parishioners and orphaned girls in the Catholic church at Meudon, the Paris suburb where John lived for nearly 30 years. Almost all of these subjects are viewed from the back. Other watercolors in the album portray a woman in a train carriage, a woman wearing a striking boa and a black cat in a window. A few of the watercolors have pencil sketches on the reverse. John gave the albums to Symons in June 1920. Both were natives of Pembrokeshire, Wales.
In an article recently published in the Princeton University Library Chronicle, Robins shows the relationship of the Princeton albums to two albums once belonging to the New York attorney and art collector John Quinn (1870–1924) and to works in British institutions. Robins notes, "Symons and John belonged to interconnecting networks that brought artists, writers, actors, gallery owners and collectors together in the increasingly international world of Paris, London and New York. ... Gwen John's oil painting has undergone a major reassessment in recent years. The discovery of the two Symons albums makes a considerable contribution to an understanding of her greatness."
The American painter and art collector A.E. Gallatin (1881–1952) acquired the papers and albums from Symons' widow and donated them to the Princeton University Library in 1951.
For more information, contact Don Skemer, curator of manuscripts, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections.