cover image Letters to Gwen John

Letters to Gwen John

Celia Paul. New York Review Books, $29.95 (352p) ISBN 978-1-68137-640-0

Painter Paul (Self-Portrait) shares her thoughts on art, relationships, and the creative life through letters to Welsh artist Gwen John (1876–1939) in these intimate meditations. Paul explains that she’s drawn to John because of her work, as well as for what they have in common: they’re both painters who attended the Slade School of Fine Art, both were involved with older male artists (in Paul’s case Lucien Freud, and in John’s Auguste Rodin), and both depend on solitude to nurture their art. In periodic entries and correspondence spanning February 2019 to November 2020, Paul reflects on her formative experiences (“My earliest memories are of brightness and freedom”), mortality (“I am terrified of ageing”), and family (“I’ve wondered what it would be like to have a brother”). Paul’s prose is spare and luminous, revealing her painter’s eye in attention to color, texture, and depth, as when she notes the flowers around her cottage “glowing in the grass, the simplest of flower-forms with their four evenly spaced yellow petals; they are interwoven with the stars of stitchwort.” The included paintings, both John’s and Paul’s, are breathtaking. Fellow artists will relish this lucid look at what is required to “live and paint truthfully.” Agent: Jeffrey Posternak, Wylie Agency. (Apr.)