WOMEN IN ART – 10TH INSTALLMENT
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.
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.
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.”
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!