Elm City Scrapbook is a column alternately written by Daniella Sanchez (MC ’25) and Catherine Kausikan (GH ’25) which each week tells the story of a work of art in or around New Haven.
There, on the canvas, a lady sits. Her body is a dark tent, her head a crescent of creamy beige. Dull afternoon light creeps in through the window and illuminates the cat beside her. It is a pretty room: the wallpaper is a delicate diamond print. Hexagons tessellate the tiled floor. However domestic, the lady offers us no familiarity. She is faceless, formless; she fills the space with an inscrutable weight.
In another painting hung nearby, the artist Gwen John is more generous with detail. The same woman, presumably, stares past the edge of the frame, this time with the cat in her lap. We see the sharp angles of her nose and chin, the plump fullness of lips neatly closed, a rosy blush atop high cheekbones. Even so, the woman is barely there. Patches of her dress blend into the dusty taupe behind her, breaking up the weave of linen untouched by paint. Both her sleeve and her hands undo themselves into this gray nothingness of unprimed canvas. It is impossible to tell where she is, what she is thinking, who she is.
Is this how John herself felt, her art lost even in her own time, today nearly erased by posterity? We remember her as Rodin’s lover, or as the sister of some other painter. Even the colors on her canvases have a muted quality that echoes our hazy misremembering. The woman in the paintings could be Gwen herself, or anyone, or no one at all. There is something wistful in this forgotten unknown. Hers is a question that will forever remain unanswered. Still, John asks. We continue to wonder.
Gwen John’s La Chambre sur la Cour and Young Woman Holding a Cat are currently on display on the second floor of the Yale Center for British Art.