Herbert James Gunn and His Mona Lisa

At thirty-one-years old Herbert James Gunn’s life was only just beginning. Sure, the Scotsman had already been married once, fathered three children, fought in World War I and wandered through the cities of Europe and the sun-drenched north of Africa, milestones which would take many of us a lifetime to achieve. But there he was – in Italy, gaining modest recognition for his art and preparing himself to turn a new page.

The first time he met her, she was hosting a luncheon for one of his prospective sitters. Later that same year, in 1928, he went to visit her in Rome, where she was working for Elizabeth Arden, the cosmetics company. Gunn couldn’t have known it at the time, but his career and love life were about to collide, an irreversible chain of events set in motion by one woman: Marie Pauline Miller.

Gunn was smitten with Pauline. So much so, that between the time he met her and the time they married – one year later, in 1929 – the Scotsman had all but given up his light-infused landscape paintings, making the transition to portraiture. Why bother painting the blues of the Mediterranean when he had a gorgeous, living and breathing muse right next to him?

In truth, this is just a romantic excuse. The reality was much grimmer and, frankly, more pragmatic – the sort of pragmatism for which we always condemn artists who, we believe,  are supposed to suffer for their art and varnish their canvases with sweat and tears, while subsisting on nothing but air.

Herbert James Gunn - Rome from the Pincio, looking towards St. Peter's
Herbert James Gunn – Rome from the Pincio, Looking towards St. Peter’s (1928), oil on canvas. Painted en plein air during Gunn’s stay in Rome

Returning from Rome in 1929, Gunn put all his hopes in his exhibition of Italian landscapes at the Fine Art Society in London. He was hoping the sales would cover his upcoming wedding expenses and provide a comfortable financial cushion to the new life he was about to start with Pauline. But the show was a fiasco. With the exception of a few kind words from the Daily Telegraph critic, Gunn was mostly ignored and was unable to sell a single painting. It stung. Writing to Pauline after the show, the artist expressed his resolve to give up landscapes and reinvent himself as a portraitist.

Sir Herbert James Gunn - Queen Elizabeth II in Coronation Robes
Herbert James Gunn – Queen Elizabeth II in Coronation Robes (1953 – 1954), oil on canvas. Royal Collection Trust, Windsor Castle | ZOOM IN

Financially speaking, this was the best decision Gunn ever made. But more than money and recognition, portraiture offered him the stability which he craved, having lived through the uncertainties and self-doubt of being an unsung landscape artist. Portraiture was an escape for the Scotsman, who called it “a steadying force… traditional and sane.”

In time, he became a very successful artist, even depicting Queen Elizabeth II at her coronation, the Queen Mother and Prince Philip, as well as many high figures in elite British society, including four prime ministers.

Herbert James Gunn -  Pauline, Wife of the Artist (c. 1930)
Herbert James Gunn – Pauline, Wife of the Artist (c. 1930), oil on canvas. Touchstones Rochdale, Rochdale

But when you look at Gunn’s oeuvre, there is one queen that stands apart: Pauline.

Gunn painted his partner with the frequency and conviction of a lover renewing his vows with each new painting, both his devotion to her and her stunning beauty remaining visibly unwavering during their twenty-one years of marriage. Seen through the artist’s eyes, Pauline is a force of nature, all poise and grace, tactful strength and silent contemplation, her face lit with an alluring, impenetrable mystery.

It is difficult to tell, looking at these paintings, whether we’re witnessing Pauline’s transformation in time, Gunn’s maturation as a portrait artist, or even the financial implications of his success. But it’s a journey worth taking, so allow me to be your guide.

Herbert James Gunn - My Wife (Pauline Miller), c. 1933
Herbert James Gunn – My Wife (Pauline Miller), c. 1933, oil on canvas. Dundee Art Galleries and Museums Collection

Pauline, Wife of the Artist and My Wife are some of Gunn’s earliest depictions of his partner. The first one is rather bland and saccharine, despite the artist’s achievement in conveying the almost tangible, plush feel of Pauline’s black outfit.

In My Wife, on the other hand, Gunn makes good use of contrasts and textures, the subtle pink of the background emphasizing Pauline’s striking black silhouette punctuated by brilliant white gloves and a floral headpiece. It is, perhaps, the only time we get to see Pauline without her enigmatic smile.

Herbert James Gunn - Pauline in Paris (1936)
Herbert James Gunn – Pauline in Paris (1936). Private collection

Fast forward a little and, by 1936, with Gunn’s career taking off and the couple now living in the City of Lights, Pauline in Paris is at her most radiant, with her arresting red lipstick and her glamorous evening gown revealing two bare shoulders. There is so much emphasis on Pauline and the beautiful contrast of her black dress with her ivory skin, that the landscape in the background goes mostly unnoticed. But there’s the Seine and the Pont de la Tournelle, just outside the couple’s apartment in Paris.

Merely three years later, in 1939, we’re back in London where Pauline Waiting shines in her sophistication. Sitting at a table in the lobby of the posh Claridge Hotel, Pauline looks away wistfully, as if waiting for someone. Although her attire is very fashionable and chic, complemented with luxurious accessories, its black sombreness and the veil over her face seem to be reminders of the dark cloud hovering over Europe at the time. World War II was just beginning. Behind her, in softer focus and with less distinguishable detail, life seems to go on: clients smoking, a waiter taking orders, the hotel’s pianist playing a tune.

Herbert James Gunn – Pauline Waiting (1939), oil on canvas. Royal Academy of Arts, London
Herbert James Gunn – Pauline Waiting (1939), oil on canvas. Royal Academy of Arts, London | ZOOM IN

It’s wonderful how Gunn chose to depict Pauline’s hands – so soft and gentle compared to her square shoulders. Her left hand, lightly holding a black glove, leans on the handle of her umbrella while her right hand rests patiently in her lap. There is no grip, no tension. She has nowhere to go, nothing to do, but wait.

And wait she did, for five years, until 1944 when – with World War II still raging on – all her reservations are discarded in Pauline in the Yellow Dress. There are no more sideway glances here, as Pauline looks straight at us with a scrutinizing gaze that must have made many grown up men blush and squirm under its intensity.

Herbert James Gunn – Pauline in the Yellow Dress (1944)
Herbert James Gunn – Pauline in the Yellow Dress (1944), oil on canvas. Harris Museum & Art Gallery, Preston

Exhibited at the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition, the painting was the star of the show, even being nicknamed the “Mona Lisa of 1944” by a Daily Mail reporter that year. The lively and luxurious yellow Pauline is wearing fascinated and drew in crowds of enthusiastic visitors, this cheerful color being perceived as symbolic defiance in the face of the hardship and extreme deprivations of war Britain had to withstand.

As she sits cross-legged with two white lapdogs around her on an ornate chair, there is an intoxicating sense of luxury and decadence emanating from the setting and the yellow, heavy folds of Pauline’s dress. Even by today’s standards – or maybe especially now, given how informal we’ve become – this unabashed, ostentatious display of fabric and wealth is rather unnerving. The deep V of her neckline deceivingly revealing a delicate camisole with a hue similar to her skin tone adds to the slightly controversial conspicuity of the picture.

We can only imagine what must have run through the minds of the tens of thousands of visitors who flocked to see the painting that year. Some were ambivalent about the frivolity presented, but many others were buoyed to see in it a sign of rebellion against the grimness of war, and perceived it as an optimistic, tantalizing glimpse of what lay ahead. Ironically, the extravagant dress seen as a symbol of national pride had been imported from the United States. Whoops.

Gunn continued painting his partner and muse until her untimely death, spurred by cancer, in 1950. Even in the later portraits where threads of white are tainting her jet black hair and crowning her temples, and old age is catching up with her, Pauline looks just as ravishing, her mysterious smile daring us to guess what she’s thinking. I reckon that Gunn himself never fully answered that question, his love and fascination with her abounding anew with each and every brushstroke, a bittersweet reminder that some enigmas are better left unsolved.

 

17 thoughts on “Herbert James Gunn and His Mona Lisa

  1. Oh, what a delightful journey you took us on Gabriela . An amazing set of paintings. Made me think of how love, or one of its many facets is to see your lover , in new light again and again. A spring that replenishes itself.
    When I looked at the work on the fabric ( Queen as well as the Yellow Dress ) I for a moment thought this no way is a painting, more an old photograph surely. How is such detailing achieved in a painting ?Is there some technique. Especially the Queen’s dress. Splendid.
    Thank you.
    P.S: I love these series of write ups where the story is not just about an individual painting but of process/lifetime/thinking.
    P.P.S : Keep it up.

    -Numbre Uno fan.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re right, some of the details are amazingly photo-realistic. The fabrics and the outfits, in particular. You can almost feel them.

      I’m really glad you like this longer format. At the moment I feel like it suits me better, since I’m often reading more than I’m actually writing. All the time spent researching kinda goes to waste if I just focus on one painting at a time. But it’s a lot to take in for the reader, so I’m still in an experimental phase.

      Thank you so much for your kind words and for this much needed feedback. And for taking the time to read at all. Attention has become our most valuable resource, and I’m truly grateful to have captured your attention. Ok, now I sound pompous. I just can’t thank you enough…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. P.P.P.S : I don’t understand why you don’t get enough credit for what you write. Oh, sure the artist was great. But come on. Writing essays is not an easy job. Really proud of how seamless and easy you make it appear that people over look it.

    🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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