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`I paint a good deal, but I don't often get a picture done'

By Christopher Andreae / November 7, 1985

THERE seems to be a little confusion about the name of Gwen John's cat. In fact, she owned a number; but one -- a female that looked ``white from the front and tabby from the back'' -- engaged her special affection and was painted numerous times. Mary Taubman, in her new monograph on the Welsh-born artist (Scolar Press, London; Cornell University in the United States), says it was known to Gwen John and her friends as ``Edgar Quinet.'' This was not with direct reference to the French historian but to the boulevard on which Gwen lived with Dorelia McNeill when they arrived in Paris in 1904. It was named in Quinet's honor.

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Ms. Taubman quotes several mentions of the cat: one in a letter from a friend of Gwen in Zermatt, who wrote: ``Give my love to Edgar Quinet. Is he as troublesome as ever?''

He or rather she does seem to have been somewhat difficult. Gwen spent many traumatic hours searching for her when she disappeared. In one of Gwen's many letters to the sculptor Rodin (for whom she modeled and with whom she was passionately in love) she described her feelings about the cat: ``I know all her thoughts and needs, she tries to understand me, she understands what I say but she never obeys even when she wants to.''

Gwen's watercolor drawings (and she left more than a hundred of cats) show ``Edgar Quinet's'' typically feline egocentricity inspiring her owner's devotion, yet perfectly indifferent to it, self-contained, secretive. In a poem Gwen refers, with some justification, to the cat's ``petite ^ame myst'erieuse.'' She tried to capture something of this strange inner life in her paintings, a number of which she sent to Rodin, but she said she never felt she had succeeded in showing what the cat was really like.

Susan Chitty, in her 1981 biography of Gwen John, writes about the same cat but as ``Tiger.'' She says: ``Tiger was not an easy model. At the sight of a pencil and paper she would start a game and become impossible to draw. She would only arrange herself when Gwen had given up and put on her hat to go out.''

In some ways, Gwen John has remained to the outside world as much of an enigma as her cat. But perhaps it is today's growing interest in the special qualities of women artists that has brought renewed recognition. (An exhibition of her works that ran recently at London's Barbican Centre is moving to Manchester, England, late this month and to the Yale Center for British Art early next year.) But a reassessment is deserved by any standard, not simply to redress the tendency to play down her achievement as ``merely women's art.''

She was quiet, almost secretive, about her aims and ambitions; her paintings often showed a repetitive interest in features of her private domesticity -- her rooms in Paris, herself (she was a potent self-portraitist), her close women friends, and her cat. In some ways her art can be seen to have roots in the ``interiors'' of 17th century Dutch painting.