Visual Arts: In the shadow of big brother

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Gwen John was born in 1876, two years after her famous sibling, Augustus, whose path to the Slade School of Art she followed in 1895. During her lifetime, Gwen was always in the shadow of her brother, but, in more recent years, she has emerged as an equal talent, championed by those who look for heroines of women's art and pilloried by those who take the other course. In particular, she is a bugbear of Brian Sewell who has memorably, if unfairly, described her as "the archetypal silly woman, an hysteric in the classical sense... obsessed with cats, religion and pinching her nipples."

On the face of it, Gwen John is an easy figure to make fun of, especially in the way that she fell for the sculptor Rodin, for whom she started modelling soon after her arrival in Paris in 1904. It soon became a sexual relationship and an obsessive one, so that she continued to follow him around long after he had tired of her. It's a sad and rather pathetic tale, yet, for all that, she left a number of terrific pictures.

A painting like A Corner of the Artist's Room which belongs to the Graves Art Gallery in Sheffield is one of the great pictures of its kind, a deeply moving study of quiet and intimate melancholy. This isn't in the Browse & Darby exhibition, but they have borrowed a number of decent works from public and private collections to bolster the selection of 15 or so gouaches that they have for sale.

There are 55 pictures in all, including a number of her oddly composed portraits of elongated women with little heads. I don't think she ever painted a fat lady, and hardly ever a man, but there's something about her dry, grey-toned paint which suits the slightly neurotic look of her favoured subject. The little gouaches of jugs of flowers, church-goers and all manner of curled cats often look like they have been cut from a larger picture; fragments of something that didn't quite work out. Yet they still retain an undeniable and uncomplicated charm.

Gwen John, Browse & Darby, 19 Cork Street, W1 (0171-734 7984) 21 May-25 June