Gwen John - Painter, lover, recluse

Gwen John, self portrait 1902
Gwen John, self portrait 1902

The Beginnings - Lover and Shadow

Born Gwendolen Mary John, 1876 in Haverford West, Wales, as well as her brother Augustus, she had two sisters. Her father, a solicitor was a man serious man of dour demeanour, which might well explain her own character. Not long after the premature death of her mother in 1884 the family moved along the coast to the picturesque fishing village of Tenby.

Gwen drew throughout her childhood and in 1895 joined her brother in London at the Slade College of Art. This was the height of the Victorian era and not many women were to be seen in these surroundings.

Born Gwendolen Mary John, 1876 in Haverford West, Wales, as well as her brother Augustus, she had two sisters. Her father, a solicitor was a man serious man of dour demeanour, which might well explain her own character. Not long after the premature death of her mother in 1884 the family moved along the coast to the picturesque fishing village of Tenby.

Gwen drew throughout her childhood and in 1895 joined her brother in London at the Slade College of Art. This was the height of the Victorian era and not many women were to be seen in these surroundings.

Dorelia McNeill, 1903
Dorelia McNeill, 1903

Life after College

 After graduating she worked in Paris for a while in the studio of American artist, writer and poet James Whistler. She returned to London in 1899 to start working on an exhibition of her own, at the time living in a derelict building illegally to save money.

 

In 1903 along with her friend Dorelia McNeill; who would eventually become Augustus John’s second wife, she set off to walk to Rome.  After a few weeks on the road, picking up odd jobs, sleeping under the stars or in barns they reached Paris and here she stayed for the majority of her life. Living and painting in a small apartment in the Meudon district.

Paris - Rodin and beyond

 

Not long after her arrival she was introduced and modelled for the now aging Auguste Rodin. He was 63 and she some thirty five years his junior but the soon became lovers. During this time she posed for his famous sculpture “the Muse”. She wrote regularly to him and he took her under his wing, supporting her emotionally, financially and physically. It would seem though that her needy disposition pushed him away and the affair ended after a couple of years.

Study of Gwen for Rodin's sculpture "The Muse"
Study of Gwen for Rodin's sculpture "The Muse"

After the deaths of her patron John Quinn and Rodin, she embraced Catholicism and through her involvement at the local convent received a commission to paint thirteen pictures of their founder, Mere Poussepin. With her usual flair for the uncertain and dramatic, this took her seven years to complete. When the sister superior wouldn’t let her use one of the nuns habits she starved herself to save the money to make her own version. A situation which worried her brother greatly and he regularly commented on her health and living conditions

In 1926 love once again entered her life and she had a tempestuous four year relationship with Vera Oumancoff, who eventually finished the affair as a result of John’s possessive nature. After this little is heard of her, the last dated painting is from 1933. In September 1939 while travelling through Dieppe she collapsed and was hospitalized, later dying.

The Paintings

The Nun, Mere Poussepin, 1915 - 21
The Nun, Mere Poussepin, 1915 - 21
Chloe
Chloe
Nude girl 1910
Nude girl 1910

Her Work

Gwen’s work has a serious, contemplative feel to it; her sitters always have a strained look about them as if her own seriousness was contagious. As taught by Whistler she used a limited, mute pallet, which adds to the feeling of anxiety in her work. Her scenes have pale, low light and minimal furnishing. As she said herself “Aloneness is nearer God, nearer reality”

Although almost unknown at the time of her death, her re-emergence in the mid 1970’s when twice the number of books were written about her life as had over the intervening 50 years. She had gained a new audience among the young feminist artists of the 1980’s, Gwen represented a young, independent, sexual ambiguous, shy but opinionated and educated artist struggling against the challenges of the Edwardian age. Her adoption as an icon for feminist painters was inevitable and with it her place in art history ensured. As Augustus John famously predicted “50 years after my death I will be remembered as Gwen John’s brother”. How right he was.

Other Artists on This Hub

Leading Female Painters 1400 - 1650 The forgotten few.

Austrailan Impressionist Painter - Rupert Bunny A friend of Rodin, who lived in Paris at the same time as Gwen

Renaissance Painters - Jacopo Bassano

Expressionist Artist - Amedeo Modigliani

Female Renaissance Artist - Sophonisba Anguissola
Tutored by Michelangelo, member of Accademia della Arte, died aged 90.

Female Baroque Artist - Artemisia Gentileschi Follower of Caravaggio's style, painter to the Court of Charles I

Baroque Painter - Caraggavio
Leading light of the Baroque movement, died tragically young

Rococo Portrait Painter - Rosalba Carriera

Dadaist - Hannah Hoch

More by this Author


Comments 10 comments

ripplemaker profile image

ripplemaker 7 years ago from Cebu, Philippines

You are right about the seriousness...I could actually feel the seriousness while looking at her paintings. LOL

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Amanda Severn profile image

Amanda Severn 7 years ago from UK

I saw an exhibition of Gwen and Augustus John's work in London about 5 years ago. Her paintings are delicate and sad, and almost apologetic. Nobody smiles in a Gwen John painting.


knell63 profile image

knell63 7 years ago from Umbria, Italy Author

Thank you both for your comments, I also love that even the Google ad on this post for DVD painting lessons seems to feature a little girl with a serious Gwen John look. Perhaps Adsense does work.


RedElf profile image

RedElf 7 years ago from Canada

Great info. Nice to meet another student of Art History...congratulations on your nomination.


k@ri profile image

k@ri 7 years ago from Sunny Southern California

Interesting story. She must have been a very serious woman! Not one of her models even have the hint of a grin.


knell63 profile image

knell63 7 years ago from Umbria, Italy Author

Thanks Kari, I agree a very singular personality, if a little possessive, its as if her art and models had to be as serious as her, echoing her through the pictures.

Cheers RedElf, totally out of the blue the nomination, they must have had someone else in mind and typed my name by mistake.


halleyhoops profile image

halleyhoops 7 years ago from west palm beach

i love her rendering of faces


Donna Bamford 6 years ago

I had never heard of her before but I like her work, serious or not. It's so fascinating to read about the lives of artists and writer's and musicians. I shall look for more of Gwen John's work.


knell63 profile image

knell63 6 years ago from Umbria, Italy Author

There is a lovely collection of her work in the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff as well as a few of Rodin's sculptures for which she modeled. Most as quite small, less than A4 in size, I like her muted pallet as well, its like she was trying to get as much for her money as she possibly could, out of the paints.


mewlhouse profile image

mewlhouse 6 years ago from Louisville

One of my favorite women when it comes to art. I enjoyed your quality post.

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