Suffragist Series: Mary Church Terrell (1863-1954)

Suffragist Series: Mary Church Terrell (1863-1954)

Suffragist Series highlights the fascinating suffrage activists that I researched as dramaturg for A Women’s Suffrage Splendiferous Extravaganza! (AWSSE!), a new vaudeville-inspired revue about the history of the women’s suffrage movement in the United States. It has been an eye-opening experience to confront how little I knew about the history of the women’s suffrage movement, and I look forward to sharing more about the lives and contributions of these remarkable activists. For more information about AWSSE! and to follow its newest developments, check out my projects.

Mary Church Terrell (1863-1954)

Mary Church Terrell was an eminent Black writer, educator, and civil rights activist, who co-founded the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) and was an original signatory of the charter to establish the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Born in Memphis to an affluent family, her parents, who were both formerly enslaved, were successful entrepreneurs. Her mother, Louisa Ayres Church, owned a hair salon, and Terrell’s father, Robert Reed Church, was the first African American millionaire in the South. Terrell’s parents stressed the importance of education, and Terrell attended Oberlin Academy and Oberlin College, where she received a Bachelor of Arts in Classical Languages, as well as a Master’s degree. Upon graduation, Terrell taught at Wilberforce College in Ohio, and in 1887, she moved to Washington DC to teach at the M Street Colored High School (which later became Dunbar High School).

Mary Church Terrell, ca. 1880-1900
Photo: Library of Congress

In 1892, Terrell grieved the loss of a close friend from Memphis, Thomas Moss, who was violently lynched by a white mob over the success of his business. Between 1877 and 1950, Moss was one of approximately 4,000 victims of lynching in the southern United States. [1] This tragedy spurred Terrell’s activism: she collaborated with her friend and famed journalist Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1862-1931) to organize national anti-lynching campaigns, as well as lobbied President Benjamin Harrison with civil rights activist and author Frederick Douglass (1817-1895) to condemn lynching.

NAACP Silent Protest Parade, Fifth Avenue in New York City (1917)
Photo: Underwood and Underwood; Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library
Ida B. Wells, ca. 1893-1894
Photo: Ida B. Wells Papers; University of Chicago Library

In 1896, Terrell co-founded the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), serving as its first president. The NACW adopted her motto, “Lifting As We Climb,” which exemplified Terrell’s philosophy of community uplift to improve the daily lives of Black Americans and combat the virulent racial discrimination that they faced through education, activism, and employment opportunities.

“Lifting as we climb, onward and upward we go, struggling and striving and hoping that the buds and blossoms of our desires will burst into glorious fruition ere long … Seeking no favors because of our color nor patronage because of our needs, we knock at the bar of justice and ask for an equal chance.”

Mary Church Terrell, “What Role Is the Educated Negro Woman to Play in the Uplifting of Her Race?” (1902)
Banner with motto of Oklahoma Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs from the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture
Photo: National Association of Colored Women (1896)
Mary Church Terrell (fourth from left) with activists picketing outside Murphy’s five-and-dime for refusing to serve African Americans (early 1950’s)
Photo: Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University Archives
Portrait of Mary Church Terrell
by Betsy Graves Reyneau (1888-1964);
U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

In service of education for all African Americans, Terrell served on the Washington Board of Education from 1895 to 1901 and from 1906 to 1911. She was also a passionate advocate for women’s suffrage. Undeterred by the racism that coursed through the women’s suffrage movement, Terrell advocated for the voting rights of Black women, stating that suffrage was not only an essential tool for self-enfranchisement, but would also uplift all African Americans. At the biennial meetings of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), Terrell spoke in 1898 and 1900, stressing that Black women were forced to confront the double barriers of racial and gender discrimination. Terrell’s intersectional outlook deeply informed her activism as a suffragist; she picketed Woodrow Wilson’s White House with members of the National Woman’s Party and spoke at the International Council of Women in Germany in 1904, presenting her speech in German.

Terrell became a sought-after speaker and writer in the United States and abroad, and in 1940, she published her autobiography, A Colored Woman in a White World, which described the successes, challenges, and discrimination she faced throughout her career as a Black woman activist and educator. After World War II, Terrell’s fight for social justice continued, and she worked to end legal segregation in Washington DC. While DC had passed anti-discrimination laws in the 1870’s, twenty years later, these laws had been eroded. African Americans were banned and excluded from public places, such as restaurants. In 1950, Terrell and her activist colleagues entered segregated Thompson Restaurant, asking to be served. The group was refused, and they sued. Terrell continued to target segregationist polices through boycotts, picketing, and sit-ins. In 1953, segregated eating places were declared unconstitutional in Washington DC, and in 1954, the Supreme Court ruled that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional.

That same year, at the age of ninety-one, Terrell died in Highland Beach, Maryland. In the face of violence, ignorance, and prejudice, Mary Church Terrell tirelessly devoted her life to the advance of equal rights for Black Americans through supporting anti-lynching legislation and women’s suffrage, dismantling segregation laws, and advocating for equal access to education and economic opportunities for all.


  1. Kendra Kneisley, “Lifting As We Climb: The Life of Mary Church Terrell,” She Shapes History: Berkshire Museum,
  2. Tyina Steptoe, “Mary Church Terrell (1863-1954),” Black Past, January 19, 2007,
  3. “Mary Church Terrell,” National Park Service, January 16, 2020,
  4. Debra Michals, “Marcy Church Terrell,” National Women’s History Museum, 2017
  5. Allison Lange, “National Organization of Colored Women,” National Women’s History Museum, 2015,
The Myth of Semele: A Woman on Fire

The Myth of Semele: A Woman on Fire

The Myth of Semele

Although various versions of the myth of Semele exist, they follow a similar narrative trajectory: Semele was a Theban princess. One day, she encountered the god Jupiter, who instantly fell in love with her. Since Semele is characterized as the object of Jupiter’s desire, her initial feelings are rarely elucidated. When Jupiter’s wife, Juno, learned of their relationship, she schemed to punish Semele. Juno disguised herself as Semele’s nurse, Beroë. Believing her nurse to be a friend and confidant, Semele confessed that Jupiter, the ruler of the Olympian gods, was her lover. Beroë questioned Jupiter’s honesty – was he truly immortal and so powerful? With these seeds of doubt planted in Semele’s mind, she asked Jupiter for a favor. Swearing on the River Styx, he promised to grant any request that Semele asked of him. Semele demanded that Jupiter reveal himself in his immortal glory to prove that he was truly a god. Jupiter pleaded with her to take back her request, but Semele insisted. Bound to his oath, Jupiter revealed himself as immense clouds, thunder, and lightning. Semele, a mortal, could not endure the heat’s intensity, and she was tragically immolated by Jupiter’s bolts.

Although the anonymous author of the libretto set by Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre (1665-1729) ends Semele’s tale here, her mythological narrative continues. At the exact moment of Semele’s lethal request, she is also pregnant. As flames engulf her, Jupiter saves their unborn child, “sewing” the fetus into his thigh. After Semele’s death and descent into the underworld, the baby is born, and he becomes Dionysus, the god of wine, theater, and fertility. Later, Dionysus rescues his mother from Hades, and Semele becomes immortal as Thyone, the goddess who resides over Dionysus’ court on Mount Olympus.

The anonymous librettist of de La Guerre’s Semelé, however, freezes Semele’s “portrait” at the precise moment of her death, followed by an air, or aria, with a pointed moralistic tone. The librettist writes, “When Love enchains us…let us not mix with his fire/ The desire of vainglory… It is in a tender bond/ That one finds the greatest happiness;/ Glamour, supreme grandeur/ Should count for nothing.” [1] Despite her manipulation by Juno and the inexplicable fact that Jupiter, the greatest god in all the universe, cannot transcend an oath of his own making, we are led to believe that Semele is at fault for her own demise. Semelé’s narrator claims that her mortal vanity, evident in her desire to prove that she was loved by an all-powerful god, is truly her undoing. If Semele had been privately satisfied with the love of Jupiter and unquestioning in her faithfulness, she may have survived.

Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre (1665-1729)

Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre by François de Troy (1645–1730), late 17th/early 18th Century
Engraving by Juan Dolivar of the 1685 production of Jean-Baptiste Lully’s Roland, tragédie en musique at Versailles National Art Library, Paris

At the beginning of the eighteenth century, the tendency to conclude with a “moral” lesson was common in French cantatas. Airs often reflected upon past events or shed light on the specific emotion of a character within the drama. Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre published Semelé, dedicated to the Elector of Bavaria, in 1715, as part of her collection of secular cantatas. Semelé is an extension of the seventeenth-century Italian “‘cantata,’” meaning “‘sung,’” a genre that designated a piece of music written for voice(s) and accompanying instruments (basse continue). By de La Guerre’s time, cantatas were often comprised of several movements, alternating between recitative passages and arias, marked by tempo and key changes. Cantatas were performed at Versailles and other royal residences, as well as in salon concerts at the homes of French nobles. De La Guerre navigated the complex power dynamic between nobility and the artist class throughout her lifetime. Educated in Louis XIV’s court as a child, de La Guerre learned to sing, compose, and play the organ and harpsichord.

At 15 years old, she was placed in the retinue of Madame de Montespan, a patron of the arts and mistress of the king, who socialized with leading intellectual and cultural figures of the day, such as Racine and Quinault. [2] In 1684, de La Guerre left the service of the court due to her marriage to organist Marin de La Guerre. She continued to compose, perform, and publish as a freelance musician, seeking financial support through noble patronage.

Throughout her career, de La Guerre published under her own name in a variety of genres, including sacred vocal music, instrumental works, ballet, and opera, or tragédie en musique. She is credited with composing the first opera written by a woman in France, Céphale et Procris. [3]

Portraits of Semele

I have chosen three images to depict Semele, creating a portrait-timeline that culminates in this tragic and deeply unjust moment in her story. The first is the work of Jan-Erasmus Quellinus (1634-1715), a Flemish painter from a family of famous artists, who specialized in history and portrait painting. Jupiter, Semele, und Juno depicts Jupiter’s pursuit of Semele, as Juno peers from the clouds above. Cupids, nestled in the left-hand corner of the work, point to the couple, as if to reveal their relationship. Jupiter’s body language is ominous and overpowering, while Semele appears to run from him. Our second image was painted by Pietro della Vecchia (1603-1678), a Venetian painter, who painted in a variety of genres, such as altar pieces and portraits. Jupiter and Semele depicts the violent instant when Jupiter reveals to Semele the extent of his immortal powers. Semele’s face is frozen in fear and pain while Jupiter’s lightning bolts rise above her. The image is disturbing, especially due to Jupiter’s imposing form, which aggressively looms over Semele’s reclined body.

Our last image is Semele by John Duncan (1866-1945), a Scottish painter and illustrator, best known as a proponent of the Celtic Revival in Scottish art. It depicts the titular figure in death, consumed by flames. It is important to note, however, that in this portrait, Semele is finally depicted as an individual. In my research, I often found it common to find images of Semele in relation to Jupiter: in a state of sexual rapture beside him, being pursued by him, or being killed by him. Rarely did I find Semele depicted as a person, an individual, alone. Duncan’s image is powerful in that Semele does not appear to be in pain, but rather illuminated. The flames do not harm her body but seem to expand her presence. Although Duncan’s portrait still represents her demise, I find Semele’s stare unsettling, as if to assert: I will not be consumed.


Semelé by Élisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre
Paula Maust, harpsichord
Christian Paquette, Baroque flute
Theodore Welke, theorbo

i.     Simphonie
ii.    Recitatif – Jupiter avoit fait un indiscret serment
iii.   Air – Ne peut-on vivre en tes liens
iv.   Prélude Bruit
v.    Recitatif – Mais, quel bruit étonnant se répand
vi.   Simphonie
vii.  Air – Quel triomphe, quelle victoire
viii. Bruit
ix.   Recitatif – Ah ! quel embrasement tout à coup m’épouvante
x.    Dernier Air – Lorsque l’Amour nous enchaisne


  1. Mary Cyr, “Introduction.” In The Collected Works – Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre. New York: Broude Trust, 2005, 13-15.
  2. Rebecca Cypess, Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre.” Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc. 2019. Accessed on November 24, 2019.
  3. Cyr, “Texts and Translations.” In The Collected Works – Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre, 39.

Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre’s Semelé was performed as part of Portraits: The Self Illuminated. For more information about the program, check out my projects.

An Ancient Poet Speaks: Finding the Voice of Sulpicia

An Ancient Poet Speaks: Finding the Voice of Sulpicia

Sulpicia (c. 40 BCE – date of death unknown)

Woman with Stylus (“Sappho”), c. 50 CE
Museo Archeologico Nazionale – Naples, Italy

Born c. 40 BCE, Sulpicia was a noblewoman, who lived during the Augustan Age of the Roman Empire. As the legal ward of her uncle Marcus Valerius Messalla Corvinus (64 BCE – 8 CE), a military commander to Emperor Augustus and patron of an eminent literary salon, which included the famed elegiac poet Albius Tibullus (c. 55 BCE – c .19 BCE), scholars believe that Sulpicia was literate and well-educated. Corpus Tibullianum, a renowned collection of Latin poetry, may have been deliberately assembled to represent the literary works of the poetry salon under Messalla’s patronage. Divided into four books, Books I and II of the Corpus consist entirely of love elegies attributed to the poet Tibullus. 

The Augustan love elegy was composed of couplets of hexameter and pentameter, or groups of six and five poetic feet. As a Latin poetic form, the Augustan elegy was deeply indebted to the poet Catullus (c. 84 BCE – c. 54 BCE), who filled his verses with personal observation and emotion. He embraced the idea of a “subjective” poetic narrator, in which the poet writes from their own perspective about love, relationships, and desire, employing pseudonyms for their real, and sometimes imagined, love interests.

In Corpus Tibullianum’s third book, six love elegies are attributed to Sulpicia as author and poet. She details a clandestine romantic relationship with Cerinthus, her lover under pseudonym, and she boldly expresses her desire throughout the myriad turns of their relationship, which may have been upended by a difference in social rank within Roman society.  As we meet Sulpicia for the first time, she prays to Venus to “gift” her the perfect lover: Cerinthus. She claims, perhaps naively, that with the god’s blessing, they will be forever united. Triumphantly, Sulpicia longs to tell the world of her love, writing, “How I’d hate to keep what I’ve written under seal where none could read me sooner than Cerinthus.” [1] In the second elegy, with her prayers now answered, Sulpicia becomes furious with her Uncle Messalla for organizing a household trip to his country estate on her birthday. She vents that her celebration will be ruined without Cerinthus, who remains in Rome.

In the third elegy, with a sudden reversal of fortune, Sulpicia is permitted to remain in the city for her birthday. She plans to celebrate with Cerinthus, who, once skeptical of their relationship, should now be assured of her devotion. The fourth elegy marks dissolution: Sulpicia and Cerinthus’ relationship has ended. As she bitterly observes him with another, Sulpicia’s wounded pride and classist prejudice overwhelm her. By the fifth elegy, we are left to wonder: has the couple reunited? Sulpicia is now sick with fever, and she waits to hear from Cerinthus, interpreting his silence as lack of interest. At the sixth and final elegy, Sulpicia meets Cerinthus secretly once again, but ultimately departs, “favoring as I did that once to hide my own fire.” [2] Sulpicia worries that, by guarding her own emotions and desires, she has forfeited her relationship. In this moment, Sulpicia’s six love elegies conclude abruptly, leaving the audience to imagine the couple’s fate. Sulpicia’s date of death is unknown, and after the publication of the Corpus Tibullianum, she completely disappears from the historical archive.  

In her seven-song cycle Sulpicia’s Songs (2015) for voice and piano, composer Jessica Krash sets to music modern English translations of Sulpicia’s Augustan love elegies by writer, translator, and scholar Mary Maxwell. In constructing a seventh song with text from Sulpicia’s first elegy to conclude the overall cycle, Krash and Maxwell arguably engage in an act of reclamation, envisioning a musical resolution to Sulpicia’s story, one in which she and Cerinthus find some semblance of happiness together. As a personal, interpretive gesture in retaining the historical ambiguity of Sulpicia’s “end,” I take the long way there excerpts six of the cycle’s seven songs in their original order. Through film, we imagine each of Sulpicia’s elegies as a portrait, preserved within its historical frame, yet also as a living representation.

Flora (Women with Flowers), from the Villa of Arianna at Stabia, Museo Archeologico Nazionale – Naples, Italy
Women Reclining (c. 1-79 CE), from the Villa of Arianna at Stabia, Museo Archeologico Nazionale – Naples, Italy
Women Painting (c. 55-79 CE), from the House of the Surgeon at Pompeii, Museo Archeologico Nazionale – Naples, Italy

As visual inspiration, we gathered images of Roman noblewomen, collected by the National Archeological Museum of Naples, from various Roman frescoes in Pompeii, Italy. They depict a host of activities: women gathering with one another, writing with stylus and tablet, painting, preparing their toilette, and gathering flowers. While these frescoes were constructed over a century after Sulpicia’s lifetime, the images still provide a fascinating visual context in which to imagine our protagonist and her environment, especially since no single artefact of Sulpicia’s likeness has survived.

Woman Looking in Mirror, from the Villa of Arianna at Stabia, Museo Archeologico Nazionale – Naples, Italy

The story of Sulpicia, however, does not end on the papyrus scrolls of the Corpus Tibullianum. From the sixteenth century until the present day, criticism of Sulpicia’s verses within the field of Classical studies has attempted to negate her contributions as author and poet. Wielding a gamut of gendered arguments, critics claim that her poetry was conceived by a male author in her uncle’s circle, or allege that, if a Roman female author indeed created the poems, they remain amateur in construction and expression. Since the 1980’s, however, Classical feminist critique has wholly rejected the erasure of Sulpicia’s authorial voice through research and analysis into the literary output of women in ancient Rome. To this day, Sulpicia’s six love elegies remain the only extant examples of Roman Latin poetry by a female author. 

Sulpicia’s Songs envisions an embodied Sulpicia, manifesting the joys and sorrows of her romantic life. Through her own words, Sulpicia’s voice occupies a liminal space between antiquity and our present world. As song cycle, Sulpicia’s Songs operates as a vital contribution in support of feminist critical attempts to reclaim Sulpicia’s personhood, as it textually and musically reframes and performs her first century poetic voice through the perspectives of twenty-first century creative women as translator, composer, and performer.


Sulpicia’s Songs by Jessica Krash
Eric Sedgwick, piano

i. At last, it’s come
ii. The hated birthday approaches
iii. Did you hear?
iv. I’m grateful
v. Fever
vi. No longer care for me
vii. Let it be known! (piano only)


  1. Mary Maxwell, Latin Lyric and Elegiac Poetry: An Anthology of New Translations (New York & London: Garland Publishing, 1995), 83-87.
  2. Maxwell, Latin Lyric and Elegiac Poetry, 83-87.

Sulpicia’s Songs was featured on the film-recital project, I take the long way there. For more information about the repertoire on this program, check out my projects.

Self-Portraits of Desire: Louise de Vilmorin & Gwen John

Self-Portraits of Desire: Louise de Vilmorin & Gwen John

Reflections on Francis Poulenc’s Trois Poèmes de Louise de Vilmorin

Francis Poulenc’s Trois Poèmes de Louise de Vilmorin was performed as part of Portraits: The Self Illuminated. For more information about the program, check out my projects.

Louise de Vilmorin (1902-1969)

Louise Lévêque de Vilmorin by Cecil Beaton
Photo: National Portrait Gallery – London
Portrait by Cecil Beaton (1940’s)
Photo: National Portrait Gallery, London

Louise de Vilmorin, the French heir of a seed fortune dating to the reign of Louis XIV, had a private life which often eclipsed her recognition as a poet, novelist, and journalist. Vilmorin is often remembered more for her string of high-profile marriages and lovers, as well as her chic fashion sense, than the impact of her writing.

From the 1930’s through the 1960’s, she had well-documented affairs with powerful men: author of The Little Prince and pilot Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, actor and filmmaker Orson Welles, aristocrat Count Paul Esterházy de Galántha, British ambassador Duff Cooper, and French Cultural Affairs Minister and author André Malraux. She also married Las Vegas real-estate heir Henry Leigh Hunt and Hungarian playboy Count Paul Pálffy ab Erdöd.

Carrying herself with a slight limp due to childhood tuberculosis of the hip and dressed in designs by Azzedine Alaïa, Jeanne Lanvin, and Christian Lacroix, Vilmorin epitomized a certain French aristocratic charm, elegance, and razor-sharp wit. She was a complicated figure; although she believed feminists to be a “herd of vain she-asses,” questioned why young women would wear pants, and thought women who rejected using their “feminine” charms in society as “worringly pretentious,” she applied the same bruising commentary to her relationships with men, stating “I have no faith in my fidelity.” [1]

In her thirties, she began to write, publishing her first novel Sainte-Unefois in 1934. In all, Vilmorin published fifteen works of fiction, five poetry collections, and a series of society and culture articles for the magazine Le Promeneur. As a poet, she was encouraged in her writing by composer Francis Poulenc (1899-1963), who read Aux Officiers de la Garde Blanche in 1935, after Vilmorin gifted the poem to their mutual friend, French soprano Marie-Blanche de Polignac. Poulenc insisted that Vilmorin compose more poems, and their interaction resulted in the texts for Poulenc’s Trois Poèmes de Louise de Vilmorin, which he set in 1937.

Comparing Vilmorin to the likes of Paul Éluard and Max Jacob, both celebrated poets in the Symbolist and Surrealist movements, Poulenc wrote, “Few people move me as much as Louise de Vilmorin: …because she writes French of an innate purity, because her name evokes flowers and vegetables, because she loves her brothers like a lover and her lovers like a sister. Her beautiful face recalls the seventeenth century, as does the sound of her name.” [2]

I recall Vilmorin’s lengthy list of relationships because I find in Trois Poèmes de Louise de Vilmorin a potential self-portrait of the poet herself: an addict to the spontaneity of desire, to the come-what-may attitude, she will always throw herself head-first at love despite the glaring pitfalls. In “Le garçon de Liège,” Vilmorin handles her “ennui” with visits from the boy from Liège, “who won’t be caught in a trap” and floats in and out of her life. “Au‑delà” describes Vilmorin’s relationship to desire, which she flippantly views as a game of pleasure that ends in a sigh; she prizes the lover who makes her laugh. In the final song of the cycle, “Aux Officiers de la garde blanche,” Vilmorin pleads with the White Guard to protect her from an all-consuming attraction, writing, “Spare me the torment of pain/ Of loving him more one day than I do today.” As a set, Trois Poèmes de Louise de Vilmorin detail the poet’s own ambivalence towards intimacy, and she wryly keeps others at arm’s length as a means of self-preservation.

Francis Poulenc (1922) by Joseph Rosmand, Photo: J. & W. Chester, London


Trois poèmes de Louise de Vilmorin by Francis Poulenc
Eunchan Kim, piano

i. Le garçon de Liége
ii. Au-delà
iii. Aux officiers de la Garde Blanche

Gwen John (1876-1936)

Gwen John by Bassano (1928)

Who is Gwen John, and how does she figure into the poetry of Louise de Vilmorin? Although they have no direct connection, except in my imagination, intersections exist between John and Vilmorin.

John was born in Wales, and later moved to London in 1895 to study at the Slade School of Fine Art with her younger brother, Augustus, who developed into the pre-eminent portrait painter of Western Europe after World War I. His creative output and public career significantly overshadowed Gwen’s work throughout her lifetime.

In 1899, she relocated to Paris, studying with James Whistler at his Académie Carmen. Her self-portrait, Gwen John, is a product of this period, as she stares dryly, even defiantly, from the canvas, her hand on her hip. John returned to London, where she presented a joint exhibition with her brother at the Carfax Gallery; he showed forty-five paintings, while Gwen showed three. In 1904, she moved to France permanently, settling in Paris, where she supported her artistic work by modeling for other artists, such as sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840-1917). They fell in love, and their affair lasted for more than a decade.

Attracted to both men and women, Gwen was passionate in her relationships, producing 2,000 fervent letters to Rodin. As their relationship dwindled in 1913, she converted, also ardently, to Roman Catholicism, painting portraits of the nuns at the local convent in Meudon, the suburb of Paris where she lived. Since Gwen financed her career through the sale of her paintings, she was able to forego modelling. American art collector John Quinn first met her in Paris, and from 1910 until his death in 1924, he purchased every work that she produced for sale. After Quinn’s death, however, Gwen suffered financially, and her artistic output decreased significantly. With the reputation of a recluse, she lived alone, producing self-portraits, portraits of women and girls, still-lives, and occasional landscapes. Considered a post-Impressionist, John used a muted, earth tone palette, creating small, square canvases, where her subjects often sat with their hands in their laps at a three-quarter profile. Gwen died in obscurity in Dieppe, France, and her grave was not identified until 2014.

Auguste Rodin by George Charles Beresford (1902)
Photo: National Portrait Gallery

Over the past ten years, there has been a significant resurgence of interest in her life and a recontextualization of the unique and eccentric qualities of her paintings, apart from her relationships with Augustus John and Auguste Rodin. Gwen John wrote to painter Ursula Tyrwhitt, “As to whether I have anything worth expressing, that is apart from the question. I may never have anything to express, except this desire for a more interior life.” [3]

Self-Portrait (1907-1909) by Gwen John

For me, Gwen John and Louise de Vilmorin share a kinship, since historical narratives about both women have focused on their affairs and associations, instead of their artistic expressions of an “inner life.” Both artists fiercely sought self-expression, although in distinct ways. Vilmorin was an aristocrat and socialite, while John was a religious recluse. As we weave Vilmorin’s words through John’s self-portraits, a woman appears. She displays a bold and unflinching gaze as both the observer and the observed. She molds her body’s likeness in the world; she devises representations from her own image; she defines her own desires.


1. Christopher Petkanas, “Chichi Devil.” The New York Times. February 19, 2009. Accessed November 21, 2019.
2. Graham Johnson, Liner notes to Francis Poulenc: The Complete Songs, Hyperion Records, CD (2012).
3. Maria Tamboukou, “Mapping Gwen John.” In Nomadic Narrative, Visual Forces: Gwen John’s Letters and Paintings. (London: Peter Lang, 2010), 2.