The Life and Work of Gwen John

In this post celebrating St David’s Day, Adam takes a closer look at the life of Welsh artist Gwendolen Mary John.

Dydd Gŵyl Dewi Hapus! Today is St David’s Day, the feast day of St David, the patron saint of Wales, and what better way to celebrate than to find out more about one of the Welsh artists that we have in our collection here at the Whitworth, Gwendolen Mary John.

It’s fair to say that Welsh artists are underrepresented in our collection, and while we have many beautiful drawings and paintings of Welsh landscapes, actual Welsh artists are harder to find, especially Welsh female artists. However, I was very kindly pointed in the direction of John by another Visitor Team Assistant and I was not disappointed by what I found. So, without further ado let’s take a look at the life and work of this incredible Welshwoman. 

Gwendolen Mary John was born in Haverfordwest, Pembrokeshire, Wales on June 22nd 1876. John had three siblings and after the death of her mother, an amateur artist, moved with her family to Tenby at aged eight. John started painting around this time, painting objects that she found on the beach, such as shells and fish. At the age of nineteen she moved to London with her brother (artist, Augustus John) to study at the prestigious Slade School of Art, the only art school in England that allowed women at the time. 

Woman with a Red Prayer Book (c.1922 – 1928), Gwendolen Mary John (1876-1939), the Whitworth, the University of Manchester.

She found a challenging and inspiring environment, one that nurtured and improved her skills and was rarely provided to women during this period. Despite being overshadowed by her brother, John became an accomplished painter and drawer, exhibiting for the first time in 1900 at the New English Art Club and continued to do so until 1913. After becoming known for her “bohemian” lifestyle, living in a squat with her brother, the pair decided to walk to Rome, financing the move selling portrait sketches and sleeping in fields along the way. The siblings only got as far as Toulouse, and soon moved to Paris where work was easier to find.

While in Paris, John drew and painted, but also worked as an artist’s model. Most notably, John modelled for famous and accomplished sculptor August Rodin. John and Rodin became lovers despite Rodin being 40 years her senior. Sources including John’s own letters to Rodin, suggest that John became obsessed with Rodin and he became overwhelmed, ending their relationship, but John continued to write letters to Rodin daily for the next decade. Rodin’s statue ‘Whistler’s Muse’ is a testament to their relationship, as it is a statue modelled on John. 

Gwendolen Mary John (1876-1939), ‘Study of a Girl’ (1918), Gift from A E Anderson via The Art Fund, the Whitworth, the University of Manchester.

Here at the Whitworth we have four pieces of John’s work in our collection: two drawings of a girl, one of a woman from behind, and a pencil, chalk and watercolour view of a street near her home in Meudon. John has become well known for her paintings of “the Interior.” Primarily, John is known for her oil paintings of seated women, though her sketches and watercolours, still lifes of various modest rooms, people (often from behind) and works based on her cats number in the thousands.

Although it is thought that Rodin was her great love, John was known to be attracted to people of both sexes, having relationships with several women during her life. We don’t know for certain if John had relationships with any of the women who modelled for her, but we do know she was very interested in them as artists models. Her paintings show far more than just seated women, but of women reading and contemplating; quiet yet confident in their posture and gaze. 

Study of a Standing Girl with Clasped Hands (date unknown), Gwendolen Mary John (1876-1939), the Whitworth, the University of Manchester.

Throughout her time in France, Gwen continued to paint and sketch, developing a unique style of her own. She applied the paint in small strokes and built up her paintings in a mosaic of muted tones. John painted slowly and with a limited palette, echoing the quiet dialogue between painter and model. During her time in Paris she met artists such as Matisse, Picasso and Brâncuși, but didn’t let the trends in art at the time influence her too much. She preferred to work in solitude. After visiting an exhibition of watercolours by Cezanne, Gwen remarked: “These are very good, but I prefer my own.” John’s personality was confident and inwardly facing. Her introverted character is what really drew me to her work. You can really see John putting herself into her paintings. One of her models, 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 1910 When John’s relationship with Rodin ended, she moved to Meudon, a suburb of Paris and sought comfort in Catholicism. This coincided with her last exhibition at the NEAC. During her time exhibiting, John gained an important patron in John Quinn, who bought most of the works that John was willing to sell, thus allowing her to paint full-time.

Rue Terre Neuve, Meudon, Paris, Gwendolen Mary John (1876-1939), the Whitworth, the University of Manchester.

John was received into the Catholic church in 1913 and her faith became one of the most important aspects of her life. Many of her notebooks of this time are filled with prayers and thoughts on faith. John desired to be “God’s little artist.” This led to the painting of a series of portraits of Mère Marie Poussepin, the founder of the Dominican Sisters of Charity at Meudon, in a seating pose that was influenced by prayer cards. These paintings typified John’s mature style. 

John painted regularly up until the mid-1920’s, even exhibiting multiple times in Paris at the Salon d’Automne from 1919. However, after John Quinn died in 1924, her output began to decrease, and she became more and more reclusive and suffered great financial hardship. In the same year, John’s diary details her devastation at the death of her close friend (met through Rodin), poet Rainer Maria Rilke. She began another obsessive relationship with her neighbour Vera Oumançoff which ended in 1930, which was her last romantic relationship. John’s last drawing is dated to the 20th of March 1933 and there is no sign of any artwork after this date. On the eve of war, in September 1939, John wrote her last will and testament before leaving Paris for Dieppe, where she collapsed and died at the age of 63.

Gwen John only rose to fame after her death, having lived most of her life in seclusion or the shadow of her brother Augustus. But perhaps from what we understand about her personality, this may have been more of a blessing for her as she never sought the spotlight. Now, many modern critics even consider John to be the more talented of the two siblings. Augustus himself is quoted saying “In 50 years’ time I will be known as the brother of Gwen John.” Born and raised in Wales, Gwen John grew up to become an incredible artist, living a life of resilience and strength in the face of adversity.

Further Reading:

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