John, Gwen (1876–1939)

views updated

John, Gwen (1876–1939)

Welsh painter who lived in Paris for most of her working life and produced a small number of paintings and copious drawings and watercolors, utilizing a narrow range of subject matter, primarily that of her own passionate but somewhat solitary existence. Born Gwendoline Mary John on June 22, 1876, in Haverfordwest, Wales; died on September 18, 1939, in Dieppe, France; daughter of Edwin John (a solicitor) and Augusta (Smith) John; sister of Augustus John (1878–1961) and Winifred John; educated by governesses in Tenby until 1890; attended Miss Wilson's Academy, Tenby, 1890–93, Miss Philpott's Educational Establishment, London, 1893–94, Slade School of Fine Art, London, 1895–98, Académie Carmen, Paris, 1898; never married; no children.

Family moved to Tenby following mother's death when Gwen was eight years old (1884); awarded Melvill Nettleship Prize for figure composition at Slade (1898); lived in London (1899–1903); exhibited periodically at the New English Art Club (1900–11); held joint exhibition with her brother Augustus at the Carfax Gallery, London (1903); settled in France, renting a succession of rooms in Paris (1904–11), then moved to Paris suburb of Meudon, retaining city flat as studio (1911–18); patronized by John Quinn (1910–24); received into Catholic Church (1913); exhibited Girl Reading at a Window in New York Armory show (1918); exhibited frequently at the Paris Salons (1919–25); had works included in New York exhibition, Modern English Artists (1922); had retrospective exhibition of her work held at the New Chenil Galleries, London (1926); output and exhibition of paintings and drawings diminished (1930s); posthumous exhibitions, organized by Matthiesen Ltd, accelerated the growth of her reputation in England and America (1940, 1946).


The Artist's Sister Winifred (private collection, c. 1899); Mrs. Atkinson (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1899–1900); Self-portrait (Tate Gallery, London, 1902); The Student (Manchester City Art Galleries, Manchester, 1903–04); A Corner of the Artist's Room in Paris (Sheffield City Art Galleries, 1907–09); Nude Girl (Tate Gallery, London, 1909–11); Girl Reading at a Window (Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1910–11); Mère Poussepin (versions in private collections, National Museum of Wales, Cardiff, Barber Institute of Fine Art, Birmingham, 1913–21); Girl in Profile (National Museum of Wales, Cardiff, c. 1918); The Convalescent (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, c. 1923); Young Woman Holding a Black Cat (Tate Gallery, London, c. 1923–28). The largest public collection of her drawings and watercolors, her studio contents, is held in the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff.

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.

—Gwen John

By 1923, Gwen John knew Rodin and Rilke well, had met Maude Gonne , Picasso, and Braque, and had dined with Brancusi and de Segonzac. Though aware of the diversity of artistic experiment in Paris and London, she never attached herself to a group or movement. She chose always to withdraw, preferring to focus her eye on a private world and an "interior life." John created images of extraordinary emotional intensity and formal integrity, drawing upon her own experience and the people and places she knew best. Her greatest paintings achieve a haunting sense of human presence and luminous serenity, in Michael Salaman's words, "so intensely modern in all but their peacefulness."

Little of Gwen John's juvenilia survives, but she painted and drew from early childhood. The Slade School was her first experience in formal art education and provided an escape from the narrowness of home life in Wales. Her younger brother, the flamboyant and prolific Augustus John, who had already attended a Tenby art school, had entered the Slade the previous year. Gwen (and, in 1897, their sister Winifred John , who came to London to study music) joined him in a circle of fellow students which included William Orpen (1878–1931), Ambrose McEvoy (1878–1927), Ida Nettleship (1877–1907) who became Gwen's sister-in-law in 1901, Edna Waugh (1879–1979), Ursula Tyrwhitt (1878–1966) and Gwen Salmond (d. 1958), some of whom remained lifelong friends. Under Frederick Brown and Henry Tonks, the Slade's teaching was enlightened and liberal, combining traditional academic methods with a progressive emphasis on the development of individual style. Study in the Antique Room was followed by an early introduction to the life model. The copying of works by the old masters was encouraged. The Slade's celebrated drawing instruction demanded that the use of the line precede the creation of volume with shading. Gwen John's early tendency towards domestic interiors reveals an affinity with the tenor of much British art of the 1890s, such as the work of William Rothenstein, the French intimistes, and Dutch 17th-century genre painters. Her student copy of Metsu's The Duet is significant in this context. The self-contained serenity of the greatest of her later images of women recalls Vermeer, whose work she would first have seen in London. Portraits such as Portrait of the Artist's Sister Winifred (1899, private collection) reveal how deeply she absorbed the work of artists such as Titian and Rembrandt.

The draughtsmanship John learned at the Slade was complemented by a brief period in 1898 at the Académie Carmen, an art school in Paris founded with the help of Whistler who taught there regularly and insisted on the primacy of color and the "the scientific application of paint and brushes." The school's connection with Whistler and continental fin de siècle movements was a great lure for the students who flocked to it. John's rejection of narrative and anecdotal subjects and her interest in the creation of mood through color and formal arrangement owes much to the cult of l'Art pour l'Art which she would have found so prevalent on this first trip to Paris. The tonal refinement for which her later work is remarkable is anticipated in Whistler's famous retort to Augustus' praise of his sister's sense of "character": "Character? What's that? It's tone that matters. Your sister has a fine sense of tone."

Gwen John made her debut at the New English Art Club exhibition, London, in 1900 with a self-portrait (probably the painting now in the National Portrait Gallery, London). Like the Self-Portrait in a Red Blouse (1902, Tate Gallery, London), its bold color and composition intensify its emotional directness. Frederick Brown owned the latter painting, and, in his own self-portrait (Ferens Art Gallery, Hull), Gwen John's picture is depicted on the wall behind him. The self-portrait was central to John's work.

In 1903, she set out to "walk to Rome" with Dorelia McNeill , a magnetically beautiful typist who was studying at the Westminster School of Art, whom Gwen had met in 1902 or 1903 and who subsequently became the second wife of Gwen's brother Augustus. The two women got no further than Toulouse, where Gwen painted a series of portraits of Dorelia which combine a serene monumentality with the warm intimacy of their domestic setting. Settling in Paris in 1904, John supported herself initially by modeling, mainly for women artists, but also for Auguste Rodin. She was the model for Muse, Rodin's monument to Whistler (c. 1904–1912, plaster, Musée d'Orsay, Paris) which was never completed. Drawings by Gwen John of classical sculptures in the Louvre (Cardiff, National Museum of Wales) suggest that modeling for Rodin stimulated her own interest in sculpture. She began a long and painful affair with Rodin, the course of which can be followed in surviving correspondence. In contrast with her sometimes ruthless desire for solitariness and independence, especially from Augustus' frequent attempts to organize her life, is a sequence of relationships with both men and women characterized by a desperate and alienating need for love. In the late 1920s, Vera Oumancoff , sister-in-law of the philosopher Jacques Maritain and friend of poet Rainer Marie Rilke, felt the need to ration Gwen John's visits to one a week, every Monday, accompanied by the gift of a drawing.

In Paris, Gwen John continued to explore the possibilities of the self-portrait in different media. In 1909, she wrote of one of her early experiments with gouache, "I am doing some drawings in my glass, myself & the room, & I put white in the colour so it is like painting in oil & quicker. I first draw in the thing then trace it on to a clean piece of paper by holding it against the window." Her succession of Paris rooms became increasingly important to her work and emotional equilibrium. She wrote to Rodin: "My room is so delicious after a whole day outside, it seems to me that I am not myself except in my room." She began to paint the room empty. In A Corner of the Artist's Room, with Open Window (National Museum of Wales, Cardiff, 1907–09) and A Corner of the Artist's Room, with Closed Window (Sheffield City Art Galleries, 1907–09), her possessions and discarded clothes suggest her invisible presence.

John also painted portraits of friends and fellow artists—particularly women painters, who, like herself, were drawn to the freedom Paris offered. Two paintings of Chloe Boughton-Leigh (Tate Gallery, London, 1905–08, and Leeds City Art Gallery, 1910–14) are remarkable for the starkness of their composition and air of intense melancholy. Comparison of the two illustrates the gradual shift in John's style towards a broader handling of paint, monumentality, and an increasing sense of detachment from the individual model. More than ten years later, one sitter recalled, "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."

Between 1910 and 1924, the patronage of John Quinn (1870–1924), a New York corporate lawyer, helped to sustain Gwen John's artistic independence, and their long epistolary friendship encouraged her. He sought her judgment on other artists' work and passed on to her the praise of the many artists and critics whom he knew. Quinn had collected manuscripts by Joyce, Eliot, Pound, and Conrad before forming one of the earliest collections of modern art in America. In this collection, Gwen John's works were displayed beside those of Brancusi, Epstein, Gaudier-Brzeska, Picasso, Cézanne, Seurat, and Henri Rousseau. Quinn perceived the relationship between John's work and that of her European contemporaries as well as appreciating its deeply personal nature and her aloofness from artistic fashions. He proposed a joint New York exhibition for her and Marie Laurencin , and, in 1922, having lent his works by Gwen John to an exhibition of British art at the Sculptor's Gallery in New York, he told her that "By right, your work should have belonged with the French paintings … the following month, but your things would have been too crowded." Quinn bought everything that he could persuade her to sell and eventually provided her with an annual allowance. Of one of his purchases (Mère Poussepin, private collection, c. 1913–20), he wrote: "If I had to make a choice between the painting by you… and the Picasso, I should cheerfully sacrifice the Picasso."

In 1911, John wrote Quinn: "I paint a good deal, but don't often get a picture done—that requires, for me, a very long time of a quiet mind, and never to think of exhibition." Despite this, she did think of her work in terms of display, writing in 1918, "I should like to exhibit a lot together. My last drawings look much better if they are seen a lot together." In 1924, she wrote that "it is amusing to have things in [the salons] and to go and see them at the vernissage and to give vernissage cards to friends and make rendez-vous!" Her work was exhibited in London, at the Paris salons, and the New York Armory show alongside some of the most progressive and experimental of her contemporaries and was frequently singled out by critics. In 1909, Laurence Binyon had praised Gwen John for "that intensity… which counts for so much more than brilliancy… so rare in contemporary art." In 1924, Walter Pach wrote in Charm of her "exacting talent… as strong as it is delicate" and Country Life felt that "Gwen John cannot be called an Impressionist: there is far too much deliberation about her work, far too much monumental design. The last paintings [are] just radiant with a quiet luminosity." In 1928, Alfred Barr, Jr., described three "little pictures" at the Tate for The Arts, "which by their subtlety and colour, make the work of her flashy brother seem awkward and uncertain." However, she became increasingly reluctant to finish and send pictures away, although frequently urged to do so.

New subjects entered Gwen John's work following her conversion to Catholicism in 1913. In the same year, she was asked by the Meudon Chapter of the Order of the Sisters of Charity of the Holy Virgin of Tours to paint a portrait of their founder, Mére Poussepin (1653–1744). Between 1913 and 1920, she completed at least six versions of the portrait, derived from a printed prayer card, itself based on an 18th-century oil painting. It appears that the nuns required multiple versions of the image for the convent. This partly reproductive, partly devotional, commission was the starting point for what became her first important series in oil. A tendency to make a series of images had already emerged in her drawing, and her early interest in paired paintings, such as the Chloe Boughton-Leigh portraits and A Corner of the Artist's Room in Paris is significant in this context. From the time of the Mére Poussepin commission, the exploration of an image through repetition became the keynote of almost all her work. Although this attraction to repetition recalls Monet's series paintings, particularly when combined with John's quest for luminosity, comparison of the still monumentality of her later work with Cézanne's repeated views of Mont St. Victoire is more telling.

She went on to paint portraits of the nuns living in the convent at Meudon and sometimes posed them like their founder (e.g. A Young Nun, Edinburgh, National Galleries of Scotland). John appropriated the features of the individual nuns for the creation of an increasingly archetypal image. The individual ¾-length female figure, seen from the front or turned slightly to one side, hands in lap, dominated her work of the late 1910s and 1920s. She employed local, non-professional models. The sitters are anonymous, the same few faces recurring in paintings throughout the decade. Their settings are increasingly bare and nonspecific; sometimes the woman holds a cat (Young Woman Holding a Black Cat, London, Tate Gallery, 1923–28); sometimes a book (The Convalescent, Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum, c. 1923); sometimes she just sits (The Pilgrim, Paul Mellon Collection, 1922–25). They share an extraordinary stillness and grandeur of design. Unlike the transparent glazes of her earlier work, the pigment is now thick and opaque, painted directly onto a thinly primed or sometimes chalky canvas, rendering the surface matte and dry. The tonal range is so tight and the surface texture so uniform that in some paintings, such as Woman with a Coral Necklace (Cardiff, Welsh Arts Council), the figure appears to merge with the background.

In contrast with the rarity of her finished oils of the period is Gwen John's copious production of watercolor drawings. From 1913, she made hundreds of studies of worshippers in her church at Meudon, usually seen from behind (e.g. versions of Nuns and Schoolgirls in Church, National Museum of Wales, Cardiff). She felt unable to pray for long periods, but the drawings themselves have the air of an act of devotion. Sketches in church formed the starting point for sustained experiments with color balance, and the patterns made on the page demonstrate a fascination with the abstract qualities of

a motif increasingly detached from the subject itself. She wrote to Ursula Tyrwhitt, "A cat and a man its the same thing—it's an affair of volumes." Both the comic charm and elegant simplicity of many of these Meudon studies are found too in the drawings of children made in Brittany in 1918–19. Many are drawn outside and celebrate a bright seaside spaciousness. Such settings anticipate the tiny landscape drawings upon which John concentrated near the end of her life. The restrained clarity of the lines recalls the artist's comment, "I want my drawings… to be definite and clean like Japanese drawings."

After the 1926 London exhibition, the only show devoted entirely to her work held during her lifetime, Gwen John's production of paintings and drawings diminished. During the 1930s, she appears to have painted almost nothing at all. In her last works, she comes nearest to abstraction, particularly in her images of flowers and a favorite view from her window whose landscape was about to disappear under a building. She also produced a seemingly compulsive sequence of drawings based on an old photograph of St. Thérèse of Lisieux . Most of her last sketches are tiny, sometimes only a few centimeters square. Her health and eyesight were failing.

By 1935, Gwen John's pictures had entered museum collections in Cardiff, London, Manchester, Dublin, Buffalo, and Chicago and were thus becoming more widely known. Her work had been included in an exhibition of modern British painting in Brussels in 1929, and she sent nine paintings to Contemporary Welsh Art at the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff, in 1935. She was increasingly reluctant to sell or exhibit pictures, however, though further exhibitions were planned in New York and gallery representatives sought her out in the chalet-studio which she had had built on land at 8 rue Babie, Meudon. Most of her work remained in her studio at her death.

In these last years of her life, her letters and notebooks reveal an energetic engagement with contemporary art theory and exhaustive analysis of her own method and the "rules and problems of painting." Increasingly interested in Cubism, she attended André Lhote's classes in 1936. She writes of her admiration for the work of artists as diverse as Hogarth, Filippo Lippi, and Chagall, as well as Piero di Cosimo and Ensor. Her writings reveal a preoccupation with methodical preparation and the ordering of visual sensation, most notably in her creation of an elusive system of expressing tonal relationships in terms of numbers. In the preface to the catalogue of her 1926 exhibition she had quoted Maurice Denis: "I have always had the wish to organize my work, my thought, my life and, as Cézanne said, my sensation. The power to suggest connections between ideas and objects has always been the point of art."


Langdale, Cecily. Gwen John with a Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings and a Selection of the Drawings. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1987.

——, and David Fraser-Jenkins. Gwen John: An Interior Life. London: Phaidon Press, 1985.

Taubman, Mary. Gwen John. London: Scolar Press, 1985.

suggested reading:

Fraser-Jenkins, David. Gwen John at the National Museum of Wales. Cardiff, 1976.

Holroyd, Michael. Augustus John: The New Biography. London: Chatto and Windus, 1996.

Le Normand-Romain, Antoinette and Claudie Judrin. Exhibition catalogue, Rodin, Whistler et la Muse. Paris: Musée Rodin, 1995.

Thomas, Alison. Portraits of Women: Gwen John and Her Forgotten Contemporaries. Cambridge, England: Polity Press, 1994.

related media:

Self Portrait, a play by Sheila Yeger , directed by Annie Castledine , starring Lucinda Curtis , first opened at the Derby Playhouse, Derby, England, in September 1990.


Collections of Gwen John's letters are in the New York Public Library, Musée Rodin, Paris, and the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth.

Juliet Carey , Curatorial Assistant, National Museums and Galleries of Wales, Cardiff, Wales