Tag Archives: Women in Art


Self portrait with letter 1907

Self portrait with letter 1907


Gwen John (1876 – 1939) was a Welsh painter who spent most of her life in France. One of four children, her mother was an amateur watercolourist who encouraged her children’s interest in art and literature.

Interestingly, her brother Augustus John was one of the most celebrated painters during this time. Prophetically he said:

“Fifty years after my death, I shall be remembered as Gwen John’s brother.”

She studied at the Slade School of Art, which was the only art school in the United Kingdom that allowed female students. In 1898 she visited Paris for the first time and studied under James McNeill Whistler. She returned to London in 1899 and exhibited her work for the first time, while living in such dour circumstances she actually lived as a squatter.

She returned to France in 1903 with Dorelia McNeill (who would marry her brother) and decided to walk to Rome and create art along the way – what a bohemian! They made it to Toulouse and then went to Paris. There she started modeling – mostly for women artists. But, she modeled for Rodin and began a relationship that would last ten years.


Gwen John as Eve by Rodin

During this time, she met Matisse, Picasso, Brancusi, and the poet Rainer Maria Rilke (who was secretary for Rodin at this time – which is another interesting story!)

Gwen tended to work alone and moved to Meudon, outside of Paris, where she remained the rest of her life. When her affair with Rodin ended, she converted to Catholicism – and referred to herself in journals as “God’s little artist”. She lived alone with her cats and was known to live off fruit and nuts in order to buy art supplies and treats for her cats.

In 1910, John Quinn, an American art collector, became a her patron in 1910 and this continued until his death in 1924. The enabled her to stop modeling and devote to her art.  She painted primarily women, her cats and corners of rooms.



Gwen John as Eve by Rodin


Her small atmospheric paintings seem very quiet to me (unlike her celebrated brother’s more vivid work – see below). She painted using thin layers in the style of the old masters. Her legacy is fairly small, there are only 158 known oil paintings, which are rarely larger than 24 inches in either direction.

“I think a picture ought to be done in one sitting or at most two. For that one must paint a lot of canvases probably and waste them.”

Painting by Augustus John

Painting by Augustus John

However, there are thousands of her drawings left.

She has been the subject of several books, including Gwen John, A Painters Life by Sue Roe (which I am currently reading)  a fictional mystery, The Gwen John Sculpture by John Malcolm, a play Still Lives by Candida Cave (about Gwen, Ida (Augustus’s wife) and Dorelia (Augustus’s mistress). AND, she was the subject of a series of poems by British poet Elizabeth Burns, The Blue Flower: Poems from the Life and Art of Gwen John.

Reading about Gwen John, her relationship to Rodin, her brother Augustus, her friendship of Rilke has opened up a whole new world of people to explore!



Artemesia Gentileschi  (1593 – 1652/53)

This is my 7th installment in my weekly Women in Art series.

Why do we need to set the record straight? Artemesia fell into obscurity after her death, even though she was one of the first female artists to paint more than the traditional portraits – she actually painted major historical and religious scenarios. The Medici family collected her work.  Michelangelo Buonnarti the Younger (the more famous Michelangelo’s nephew) helped her start her career in Florence. She was friends with Galileo. But, after her death, many of her paintings were thought to have been done by her father, Orazio Gentleschi,  from whom she received early training.

Her technical abilities were beyond reproach. The following painting was done when she was but 16 or 17 years of age.

Madonna and Child 1609

Madonna and Child 1609


When she was not allowed to study in the art academies of the time her father arranged for a friend of his, Agostino Tassi, to teach her. In 1612 her father brought charges of rape against Tassi that resulted in a seven month trial. During the trial it was found that Tazzi planned on murdering his wife, planned to steal some of Orazio’s painting and was having sex with his sister-in-law. Can you believe that? He was sentenced to either a year in prison or banishment – neither of which was carried out. 

After the trial, Artemisia’s father married her off and she moved to Florence. In Florence, she was the first woman accepted into the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno.

Susanna and the Elders 1610

Susanna and the Elders 1610


This is a painting that was attributed to her father for awhile – but it is the first known signed painting by Artemisia. The story is of a virtuous Susanna being sexually harrassed by the elders in the community. Most male painters approached this with a flirtatious and coy Susanna. But, you can see Artemisia shows her scared, upset and vulnerable. Was she our first feminist painter?

Judith Slaying Holofernes 1612-1613

Judith Slaying Holofernes 1612-1613

This painting was possibly inspired by an earlier painting by Caravaggio. But Artemisia’s depiction is must more bloodier and graphic. (see Caravaggio’s below – not nearly as bloody)


Caravaggio's Judith Slaying Holofernes  1598

Caravaggio’s Judith Slaying Holofernes 1598

To read the story of Judith Slaying Holofernes – click here

Judith and her Maidservant 1613-14

Judith and her Maidservant 1613-14

This is a scene after Holofernes is beheaded and they are attempting escape. One interesting thing that is very hard to see online – Judith has an ornament in her hair that is a picture of a man with a lance – was it possibly David, who decapitated Goliath? Scholars believe it is a homage to Michelangelo’s statue of David.


This is considered a self-portrait. In fact, alot of her paintings were self-portraits.

There is must more to know about her life – she even joined her father in London in 1638 into the court of Charles I.

For more information about her life – here are some more references:

The Passion of Artemisia by Susan Vreeland

Artemisia – movie from 1997