The Letter by Gwen John

While I was visiting the Manchester City Art Gallery on Saturday, I went to have a look at one of my favourite pictures from their collection,  The Letter (1924) by Gwen John.

2012-05-05 14.46.03

It’s a very simple portrait of a young woman reading a letter. There are several versions of this painting, some titled “The Convalescent”. Other examples can be seen in the Tate collection and at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.

Like most of the works by Gwen John that I’ve seen, it’s a relatively small painting of a modest, ordinary, domestic scene. The artist has used subdued, pastel colours and it has a weathered, almost washed out look. The subject seems to be completely absorbed by the letter, giving it all her attention, unaware that she is being observed. She isn’t displaying any emotion, so we can’t gain any impression of what the letter contains. Is it good news or bad? Or something mundane.

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