Historical Portraits Picture Archive

‘Sonja in Green’, c.1932 

Sir Herbert James Gunn (1893-1964)

‘Sonja in Green’, c.1932, Sir Herbert James Gunn
Oil and Canvas
20th Century
18¼ x 14¼ in. (46.5 x 36.2 cm.)
Barbizon House; Christie's, London, 13 November 1986, lot 85.
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Sir Herbert James Gunn was one of the most accomplished society portrait painters of the mid twentieth century. Gunn’s portraits are carefully crafted in the flesh tones and costume, combining a strong sense of the individual with an intuitive grasp of contemporary sex- appeal and glamour.

Born in Glasgow into a large family Gunn found his direction early on in life. After being taught how to draw by a family friend - a hobby he pursued throughout high school, he enrolled into Glasgow School of Art followed by Edinburgh School of Art, taking a year off in between to design biscuit tin lids. In 1911 Gunn left Scotland and travelled to Paris where he joined the much renowned Academie de Juliane, studying under the great academic painter Jean-Paul Laurens (1838-1921).

Following the First World War Gunn decided to focus his attentions on portrait painting, specialising exclusively in this genre from 1929 onwards. Gunn’s style from the late 1930’s shows a clear understanding of the manipulation of colour, and how when thinly applied against a cooler backdrop, can create an effect of luminous brilliance. Regarded as his most successful work ‘Pauline in the Yellow Dress’ [Harris Museum and Art Gallery], encapsulates these ideas and, much like the present work, the subject flirtatiously fixes the viewer in way reminiscent of early film stills.

This period was one of rapid social change; the mass-availability of television sets had allowed for the first time businesses and individuals to exploit the idea of fashion and fame. The American cinemas led the charge and the numerous fashion houses and influential individuals followed in suit. Although at present unidentified, the sitter radiates the self-conscious glamour of high-society London. She also exudes brash confidence - partly evoked by its modernist title ‘Sonja in Green’ - that delivers more international, artistic nuances.

We are grateful to Chloe Gunn/Blackburn for her assistance in cataloguing this work.
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