About Gwendolen Mary John
Gwendolen "Gwen" Mary John was a Welsh artist who worked in France for most of her career. She is noted especially for her portraits of anonymous female sitters.
She was born on June 22, 1876 in Haverfordwest, Wales, the second of four children of Edwin William John and his wife Augusta (née Smith). Edwin John was a solicitor whose dour temperament cast a chill over his family, and Augusta was often absent from the children due to ill health, leaving her two sisters—stern Salvationists—to take her place in the household. Despite the considerable tension in the family (whose neighbours knew them as "those turbulent Johns") the children's interest in literature and art was encouraged. Following the mother’s premature death in 1884, the family moved to Tenby in Pembrokeshire, Wales.
Although she painted and drew from an early age, Gwen John's earliest surviving work dates from her nineteenth year. From 1895–98, she studied at the Slade School of Art, where her younger brother, Augustus, had begun his studies in 1894. During this period they shared living quarters, and further reduced their expenses by subsisting on a diet of nuts and fruit. Even as a student, Augustus' brilliant draughtsmanship and personal glamour made him a celebrity, and stood in contrast to Gwen's quieter gifts and reticent demeanour. Augustus greatly admired his sister's work, but urged her to take a "more athletic attitude to life" and cautioned her against what he saw as the "unbecoming and unhygienic negligence" of her mode of living. She refused his advice, and demonstrated throughout her life a marked disregard for her physical well-being. In 1898 she made her first visit to Paris with two friends from the Slade, and while there she studied under James McNeill Whistler at the Académie Carmen. She returned to London in 1899, and spent the next four years in austere circumstances. When she exhibited her work for the first time in 1900, at the New English Art Club (NEAC), her address was a derelict building where she was living illegally.
In the autumn of 1903, she travelled to France with her friend Dorelia McNeill (who would later become Augustus John's second wife). Upon landing in Bordeaux, they set off on a walking tour with their art equipment in hand, intending to reach Rome. Sleeping in fields and living on money earned along the way by selling portrait sketches, they made it as far as Toulouse. In 1904 the two went to Paris, where John found work as an artist's model; in that same year, she began modelling for the sculptor Auguste Rodin, and became his lover. Her devotion to the much older Rodin, who was the most famous artist of his time, continued unabated for the next ten years, as documented in her thousands of fervent letters to him. Although quiet in manner, Gwen John was strong-willed and passionate, given to fierce attachments to both men and women that were sometimes disturbing to them. Rodin, despite his genuine feeling for her, eventually resorted to the use of concièrges and secretaries to keep her at a distance.
During her years in Paris she met many of the leading artistic personalities of her time, including Matisse, Picasso, Brancusi, and Rainer Maria Rilke. In 1910 she found living quarters in Meudon, a suburb of Paris where she would remain for the rest of her life. As her affair with Rodin drew to a close, Gwen John sought comfort in Catholicism, and around 1913 she was received into the Church. Her notebooks of the period include meditations and prayers; she wrote of her desire to be "God's little artist" and to "become a saint." In an often-quoted letter of ca. 1912, she wrote: "As to whether I have anything worth expressing that is apart from the question. I may never have anything to express, except this desire for a more interior life"
She stopped exhibiting at the NEAC in 1911, but gained an important patron in John Quinn, an American art collector who, from 1910 until his death in 1924, purchased the majority of the works that Gwen John sold. As an obligation to the Dominican Sisters of Charity at Meudon, she began a series of painted portraits of Mère Marie Poussepin (1653–1744), who founded their order. These paintings, based on a prayer card, established a format—the female figure in three-quarter length seated pose—which became characteristic of her mature style. She painted numerous variants on such subjects as Young Woman in a Spotted Blue Dress, Girl Holding a Cat, and The Convalescent. The identities of many of her models are unknown, but one of them, Jeanne Foster, wrote of John: "She takes down my hair and does it like her own ... she has me sit as she does, and I feel the absorption of her personality as I sit".
In Meudon she lived in solitude, except for her cats. In an undated letter she wrote, "I should like to go and live somewhere where I met nobody I know till I am so strong that people and things could not effect me beyond reason." She wished also to avoid family ties, and her decision to live in France after 1903 may have been the result of her desire to escape the overpowering personality of her famous brother, although, according to art historian David Fraser Jenkins, "there were few occasions when she did anything against her will, and she was the more ruthless and dominating of the two."
John exhibited in Paris for the first time in 1919 at the Salon d'Automne, and exhibited regularly until the mid-1920s, after which time she became increasingly reclusive and painted less. She had only one solo exhibition in her lifetime, in London in 1926. In that same year she purchased a bungalow in Meudon. In December 1926, distraught after the death of her old friend Rilke, she met and sought religious guidance from her neighbor, the neo-Thomist philosopher Jaques Maritain. She also met Maritain's sister-in-law, Véra Oumançoff, with whom she formed her last romantic relationship. It lasted until Oumançoff, finding John's attentions oppressive, terminated it in 1930.
Gwen John's last dated work is a drawing of 20 March 1933, and no evidence suggests that she drew or painted during the remainder of her life. On 10 September 1939, she wrote her will and then travelled to Dieppe, where she collapsed and was hospitalized. She died there on 18 September 1939.
Gwen John's work consists almost entirely of small-scale portraits and still-lifes. Her portraits (usually of anonymous sitters) favored seated women in a three-quarter length format, with their hands in their laps. John painted slowly, often returning to a theme repeatedly. She preferred painting of reduced tone and subtle colour relationships, in contrast to her brother's far more vivid palette. In addition to studio work, she made many sketches and watercolours of women and children in church. Unlike her oil paintings of solitary women, these sketches frequently depict their subjects from behind, and in groups. She also made many sketches of her cats. Aside from two etchings she drew in 1910, she made no prints.
Though she was once overshadowed by her popular brother, critical opinion now tends to view Gwen as the more talented of the two. Augustus himself had predicted this reversal, saying "In 50 years' time I will be known as the brother of Gwen John."
John's pictures have been placed in many public collections, with some of the best examples in the National Gallery of Wales and the Tate.
Still Lives, by Candida Cave, is a three woman play about Gwen, Ida (Augustus John's wife) and Dorelia (Augustus John's mistress).