Young Woman Holding a Black Cat by Gwen John
oil on canvas, 45.7 cm x 29.5 cm
purchased by the Tate Gallery 1946
This look like a painting created in depression. The colours are muted and washed out, the sitter's expression is unsmiling and distant, and her posture is stiff. Her hands are clasped in her lap, and the cat is sitting between them, but she can hardly be said to be holding it. The cat is looking away from us.
There is nothing else in the picture, no scene or furniture. There is a background in shades of dirty colours; the changes in texture resemble those of watercolour brushing rather than anything as definite as light falling on walls. The whole picture is almost in a grey scale, warmed only faintly by admixture of some brown or sienna. The wall is lighter than the figures in front of it.
Most of the picture is the young woman, sitting in a long formless dress, looking out at an angle to our left. The dress is a sombre middling to deep grey. Her hands are linked, light but awkward flesh emerging from long sleeves. At her throat is a necklace, perhaps two ropes of pearls, though if they are they have no lustre.
In her arms, or in her lap perhaps, as her arms merely touch and encircle the cat tolerantly, is a large cat. The title says it's a black cat; on Gwen John's palette here it's a dark brown, washed of anything as lustrous as black. Its ears are alert, it is quiet.
This is a beautiful painting. There is little warmth in it, except that there is a subliminal welcome glow of stability if not contentment; and after all, the colours are not grey, but all have enough dim yellow in them to relieve it technically of coldness. There is no ugliness or alienation in it; at most the indifference of depression. The cat and the woman are both beautiful, in understated ways, and that adds to the serenity of the scene. Nothing is actually going wrong.
Her face has a healthy colour, not a glow, but a touch of pink compared to the overall palette. Its lightness makes her the centre. Her hair is mid-brown and tied back austerely, her eyes are brown and troubled, her eyebrows are fine and thin and sensitive. In her lips is concentrated what little rosiness there is, and if there were less wistfulness and a little laughter in her life they would be good full lips.
Gwen John worked on numerous versions of this painting. The sitter was a neighbour of hers at Meudon and appears in numerous paintings, but we don't know her name.
See the painting at http://www.tate.org.uk/servlet/ViewWork?cgroupid=999999961&workid=7153&searchid=8685&tabview=image
though the colours have a lot more grey in them there than in the postcard I have been working from. I must revisit it in the gallery and refresh my opinion.