Great Works: A Corner Of The Artist's Room In Paris(1907-09), Gwen John

Sheffield Galleries

A picture can make objects into a portrait or self-portrait; an empty room into a life or a personality. For instance, there is the memorial image by the famous London illustrator, Luke Fildes. It shows The Empty Chair, Gad's Hill – Ninth of June 1870, which was published in the Christmas edition of the magazine The Graphic in 1870. Fildes depicts the desk and chair in Charles Dickens's library, mourning his recent death.

And Van Gogh was influenced by Fildes's graphic work. The Empty Chair inspired Van Gogh to paint two chairs, in his Yellow House at Arles in 1888 – one for himself, the other for Gauguin.

Gauguin's chair is an elegant and extrovert affair, sharp-edged, carved in curves and curls and flourishes, a dandified chair that leans back and strikes a pose. It is seen by candlelight. Vincent's chair sits in daylight, in the corner of the kitchen. The chair is a plain and honest chair and emphasises how simply the thing is constructed.

The artist shows himself as a humble, practical type, interested in how things are made. The chair is remade as a piece of wonky home-made furniture. He reweaves its seat in fat strands of brushstrokes, makes it his own. It is a strong picture of self-image.

And as for Gwen John? The painter had her own self-image. She lived in Paris, in a room of her own, at 87 Rue de Cherche-Midi in Montparnasse. For money, she worked as an artist's model, in particular for the sculptor Rodin, with whom she had a troubled liaison. She didn't do much painting.

A Corner of the Artist's Room in Paris is a picture of her personal space. Only a foot high, it's like a diary record, a memorisation of a particular place and time and mood – this top-floor room, with the steep slope of the mansard roof cutting into it and the bright day flooding through the windows, held back and diffused by the floor-length net curtains.

It's a minimal scene – a sense of quiet and a sense of order. Its contents itemised distinctly. You can count them on one hand: chair, table, parasol, garment, vase of flowers. There's a transparent geometry in the forms of the windows, walls and floor.

It's a room high above street level – which is of course a cheap room, too. It's frugally furnished but kept tidy. Its forms are few and clear. And the way it's painted conveys a feeling of frailty, in the pale and subdued colours, the weak strands of the woven wicker chair, the thin stem of the parasol, the thin paint just barely touched and stroked onto the surface of the canvas.

The room portrays a state of mind, a life. The adjectives say it: pale, bare, thin, weak, few, quiet, clear, light-filled. It's a refuge, a retreat, an interior space, a place of safety and manageability, for someone in a very fragile condition. "Une petite morceau de souffrance et de désir," as John described herself at the time; a little piece of suffering and desire.

But if this image was as faint, frail, delicate and trembly as that sounds, if that was all it was, it wouldn't hold. It does, though. And what empowers it is that sharp descending triangle, which pierces the space, and the sharp contrast between light and shade along the line of its slanting edge. This shape is the picture's most dramatic event. It interrupts the atmosphere of eternal convalescence with a saving gesture of assertion, a grip of definition, a sign of strength. This room is a theatre, but with no figures.

ABOUT THE ARTIST

Gwen John (1876-1939) used to be the sister of the more famous Augustus. But their fame has swapped places, as he predicted it would. The flamboyant Gus now looks shallow and hearty. The recessive Gwen is a reclusive, introspective, obsessive talent in the true Modernist mould. A Slade student, she moved to France and studied with Whistler, adopting his greys and muted tones. For a time she was Rodin's model and lover. She painted the same subject repeatedly, pursuing small differences, a Morandi of the solitary female figure. Later became a Catholic, and painted nuns over and over again.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Zina Saro-Wiwa

art
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice