Gwen John
Overview
 
Gwendolen Mary John was a Welsh
Welsh people
The Welsh people are an ethnic group and nation associated with Wales and the Welsh language.John Davies argues that the origin of the "Welsh nation" can be traced to the late 4th and early 5th centuries, following the Roman departure from Britain, although Brythonic Celtic languages seem to have...

 artist who worked in France for most of her career. She is noted for her still lifes and for her portraits, especially of anonymous female sitters. John was an artist's model for (and later the lover of) the sculptor Auguste Rodin
Auguste Rodin
François-Auguste-René Rodin , known as Auguste Rodin , was a French sculptor. Although Rodin is generally considered the progenitor of modern sculpture, he did not set out to rebel against the past...

.
Gwen John was born in Haverfordwest
Haverfordwest
Haverfordwest is the county town of Pembrokeshire, Wales and serves as the County's principal commercial and administrative centre. Haverfordwest is the most populous urban area in Pembrokeshire, with a population of 13,367 in 2001; though its community boundaries make it the second most populous...

, Wales
Wales
Wales is a country that is part of the United Kingdom and the island of Great Britain, bordered by England to its east and the Atlantic Ocean and Irish Sea to its west. It has a population of three million, and a total area of 20,779 km²...

, 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
Salvation Army
The Salvation Army is a Protestant Christian church known for its thrift stores and charity work. It is an international movement that currently works in over a hundred countries....

—to take her place in the household.
Encyclopedia
Gwendolen Mary John was a Welsh
Welsh people
The Welsh people are an ethnic group and nation associated with Wales and the Welsh language.John Davies argues that the origin of the "Welsh nation" can be traced to the late 4th and early 5th centuries, following the Roman departure from Britain, although Brythonic Celtic languages seem to have...

 artist who worked in France for most of her career. She is noted for her still lifes and for her portraits, especially of anonymous female sitters. John was an artist's model for (and later the lover of) the sculptor Auguste Rodin
Auguste Rodin
François-Auguste-René Rodin , known as Auguste Rodin , was a French sculptor. Although Rodin is generally considered the progenitor of modern sculpture, he did not set out to rebel against the past...

.

Life

Gwen John was born in Haverfordwest
Haverfordwest
Haverfordwest is the county town of Pembrokeshire, Wales and serves as the County's principal commercial and administrative centre. Haverfordwest is the most populous urban area in Pembrokeshire, with a population of 13,367 in 2001; though its community boundaries make it the second most populous...

, Wales
Wales
Wales is a country that is part of the United Kingdom and the island of Great Britain, bordered by England to its east and the Atlantic Ocean and Irish Sea to its west. It has a population of three million, and a total area of 20,779 km²...

, 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
Salvation Army
The Salvation Army is a Protestant Christian church known for its thrift stores and charity work. It is an international movement that currently works in over a hundred countries....

—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
Tenby
Tenby is a walled seaside town in Pembrokeshire, South West Wales, lying on Carmarthen Bay.Notable features of Tenby include of sandy beaches; the 13th century medieval town walls, including the Five Arches barbican gatehouse ; 15th century St...

 in Pembrokeshire
Pembrokeshire
Pembrokeshire is a county in the south west of Wales. It borders Carmarthenshire to the east and Ceredigion to the north east. The county town is Haverfordwest where Pembrokeshire County Council is headquartered....

, Wales.

Although she painted and drew from an early age, Gwen John's earliest surviving work dates from her nineteenth year. From 1895 to 1898, she studied at the Slade School of Art, where her younger brother, Augustus
Augustus John
Augustus Edwin John OM, RA, was a Welsh painter, draughtsman, and etcher. For a short time around 1910, he was an important exponent of Post-Impressionism in the United Kingdom....

, 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
Paris
Paris is the capital and largest city in France, situated on the river Seine, in northern France, at the heart of the Île-de-France region...

 with two friends from the Slade, and while there she studied under James McNeill Whistler
James McNeill Whistler
James Abbott McNeill Whistler was an American-born, British-based artist. Averse to sentimentality and moral allusion in painting, he was a leading proponent of the credo "art for art's sake". His famous signature for his paintings was in the shape of a stylized butterfly possessing a long stinger...

 at the Académie Carmen. She returned to London
London
London is the capital city of :England and the :United Kingdom, the largest metropolitan area in the United Kingdom, and the largest urban zone in the European Union by most measures. Located on the River Thames, London has been a major settlement for two millennia, its history going back to its...

 in 1899, and exhibited her work for the first time in 1900, at the New English Art Club
New English Art Club
The New English Art Club was founded in London in 1885 as an alternate venue to the Royal Academy.-History:Young English artists returning from studying art in Paris mounted the first exhibition of the New English Art Club in April 1886...

 (NEAC). Her material circumstances were poor, and in 1900–01 she lived as a squatter in a derelict building.

In France

In the autumn of 1903, she travelled to France with her friend Dorelia McNeill
Dorelia McNeill
Dorothy McNeill was best known as a model for the Welsh artists Gwen John and Augustus John, was the common-law wife of the latter, and has been credited for inspiring "his first unequivocally personal work"...

 (who would later become Augustus John's second wife). Upon landing in Bordeaux
Bordeaux
Bordeaux is a port city on the Garonne River in the Gironde department in southwestern France.The Bordeaux-Arcachon-Libourne metropolitan area, has a population of 1,010,000 and constitutes the sixth-largest urban area in France. It is the capital of the Aquitaine region, as well as the prefecture...

, they set off on a walking tour with their art equipment in hand, intending to reach Rome
Rome
Rome is the capital of Italy and the country's largest and most populated city and comune, with over 2.7 million residents in . The city is located in the central-western portion of the Italian Peninsula, on the Tiber River within the Lazio region of Italy.Rome's history spans two and a half...

. Sleeping in fields and living on money earned along the way by selling portrait sketches, they made it as far as Toulouse
Toulouse
Toulouse is a city in the Haute-Garonne department in southwestern FranceIt lies on the banks of the River Garonne, 590 km away from Paris and half-way between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea...

. 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
Auguste Rodin
François-Auguste-René Rodin , known as Auguste Rodin , was a French sculptor. Although Rodin is generally considered the progenitor of modern sculpture, he did not set out to rebel against the past...

, 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
Henri Matisse
Henri Matisse was a French artist, known for his use of colour and his fluid and original draughtsmanship. He was a draughtsman, printmaker, and sculptor, but is known primarily as a painter...

, Picasso
Pablo Picasso
Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santísima Trinidad Ruiz y Picasso known as Pablo Ruiz Picasso was a Spanish expatriate painter, sculptor, printmaker, ceramicist, and stage designer, one of the greatest and most influential artists of the...

, Brâncuşi
Constantin Brancusi
Constantin Brâncuşi was a Romanian-born sculptor who made his career in France. As a child he displayed an aptitude for carving wooden farm tools. Formal studies took him first to Bucharest, then to Munich, then to the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris...

, and Rainer Maria Rilke
Rainer Maria Rilke
René Karl Wilhelm Johann Josef Maria Rilke , better known as Rainer Maria Rilke, was a Bohemian–Austrian poet. He is considered one of the most significant poets in the German language...

. In 1910 she found living quarters in Meudon
Meudon
Meudon is a municipality in the southwestern suburbs of Paris, France. It is in the département of Hauts-de-Seine. It is located from the center of Paris.-Geography:...

, 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
Catholicism
Catholicism is a broad term for the body of the Catholic faith, its theologies and doctrines, its liturgical, ethical, spiritual, and behavioral characteristics, as well as a religious people as a whole....

, 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
John Quinn (collector)
John Quinn was a second generation Irish-American corporate lawyer in New York, who for a time was an important patron of major figures of post-impressionism and literary modernism, and collector in particular of original manuscripts.- Life :...

, 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
Dominican Order
The Order of Preachers , after the 15th century more commonly known as the Dominican Order or Dominicans, is a Catholic religious order founded by Saint Dominic and approved by Pope Honorius III on 22 December 1216 in France...

 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 most of her models are unknown.

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
Salon d'Automne
In 1903, the first Salon d'Automne was organized by Georges Rouault, André Derain, Henri Matisse, Angele Delasalle and Albert Marquet as a reaction to the conservative policies of the official Paris Salon...

, 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 Jacques Maritain
Jacques Maritain
Jacques Maritain was a French Catholic philosopher. Raised as a Protestant, he converted to Catholicism in 1906. An author of more than 60 books, he helped to revive St. Thomas Aquinas for modern times and is a prominent drafter of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights...

. She also met Maritain's sister-in-law, Véra Oumançoff, with whom she formed her last romantic relationship, which lasted until Oumançoff 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
Dieppe, Seine-Maritime
Dieppe is a commune in the Seine-Maritime department in France. In 1999, the population of the whole Dieppe urban area was 81,419.A port on the English Channel, famous for its scallops, and with a regular ferry service from the Gare Maritime to Newhaven in England, Dieppe also has a popular pebbled...

, where she collapsed and was hospitalized. She died there on 18 September 1939.

Art

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. 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". 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 watercolour
Watercolor painting
Watercolor or watercolour , also aquarelle from French, is a painting method. A watercolor is the medium or the resulting artwork in which the paints are made of pigments suspended in a water-soluble vehicle...

s 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 etching
Etching
Etching is the process of using strong acid or mordant to cut into the unprotected parts of a metal surface to create a design in intaglio in the metal...

s she drew in 1910, she made no prints.

In 1916 she wrote in a letter: "I think a picture ought to be done in 1 sitting or at most 2. For that one must paint a lot of canvases probably and waste them." Her notebooks and letters contain numerous personal formulae for observing nature, painting a portrait, designating colors by a system of numbers, and the like. Their meaning is often obscure, but they reveal John's predilection for order and the lasting influence of Whistler, whose teaching emphasised systematic preparation.

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."

Legacy

John's pictures are held in many public collections. Some of the best examples are in the National Museum Cardiff
National Museum Cardiff
National Museum Cardiff is a museum and art gallery in Cardiff, Wales. The museum is part of the wider network of Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales...

 and in Tate Britain
Tate Britain
Tate Britain is an art gallery situated on Millbank in London, and part of the Tate gallery network in Britain, with Tate Modern, Tate Liverpool and Tate St Ives. It is the oldest gallery in the network, opening in 1897. It houses a substantial collection of the works of J. M. W. Turner.-History:It...

, London.

Still Lives, by Candida Cave, is a three woman play about Gwen, Ida (Augustus John's wife) and Dorelia (Augustus John's mistress).

An art mystery novel The Gwen John Sculpture, by John Malcolm, features her stay in Meudon, France and her relationship with Rodin.

External links

The source of this article is wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.  The text of this article is licensed under the GFDL.
 
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