Attributed to Gwen John, 1876-1939
Portrait of an Elegant Lady wearing a multi coloured Shawl and Hat seated in a Chair
Elegant Lady wearing a multi coloured Shawl
oil on canvas
20 x 30in. (51 x 76 cm.)

Artist biography

John, Gwendolen Mary [Gwen] (1876–1939), painter, was born on 22 June 1876 at 7 Victoria Place, Haverfordwest, Pembrokeshire, the elder daughter and the second of the four children of Edwin William John (1847–1938), solicitor, and his wife, Augusta Smith (1848–1884), an amateur artist and daughter of Thomas Smith, plumber, of Brighton and his wife, Mary. The artist Augustus John (1878–1961) was her younger brother.

Early years

Gwen's early childhood was spent at Haverfordwest, and after her mother's death when Gwen was eight, the family moved to the small resort town of Tenby, Pembrokeshire, where they lived at 32 Victoria Street. She was educated first at home by governesses and subsequently at Miss Wilson's academy in Tenby and Miss Philpott's educational establishment in London. The household in Tenby was a sombre one, and all four John children escaped its repressions at their earliest opportunity, Gwen John in 1895 by going to London to attend the Slade School of Fine Art, then the most progressive art school in Britain. She studied there for three years with Frederick Brown and Henry Tonks, winning a certificate for figure drawing (1896–7) and the Melvill Nettleship prize for figure composition (1897–8). Among her fellow students were Ambrose McEvoy, Ursula Tyrwhitt, Ida Nettleship (who later became Augustus John's wife), Gwen Salmond (later Mrs Matthew Smith), and, most gifted of all, her brother Augustus who, though younger, had preceded her to the Slade. Her lifelong tendency to form intense and smothering sentimental attachments to both men and women, by their very nature doomed to failure, became apparent at this time. Seemingly meek and self-effacing, she was in fact strong-willed and fiercely passionate. In appearance she was slight and pale, her brown hair carefully restrained, her dark eyes solemn and watchful; however (as may be seen in her self-portraits of about 1900 in the National Portrait Gallery and c.1900–03 in the Tate collection), the firm set of her slightly receding chin hinted at her intransigent nature.

On leaving the Slade, Gwen John went to Paris in September 1898 and studied for several months at the Académie Carmen with James McNeill Whistler, who admired her ‘fine sense of tone’ (A. John, Chiaroscuro: Fragments of Autobiography: First Series, 1952, 66). And it was there, Augustus thought, that she ‘acquired that methodicity which she was to develop to a point of elaboration undreamt of by her master’ (ibid., 250). In January 1899 she returned to London where, for the next four years, she lived what she later called a ‘subterranean’ existence in various dismal rooms in Bloomsbury and Bayswater. She commented at that time: ‘People are like shadows to me & I am like a shadow’; ‘as to being happy … when a picture is done whatever it is it might as well not be as far as the artist is concerned—& all the time he has taken to do it it has only given him a few seconds pleasure’ (John to Michael Salaman, n.d., 1902, Aberystwyth, NL Wales). During this period she had an unhappy love affair with the painter (Arthur) Ambrose McEvoy (1878–1927).

Gwen John exhibited for the first time in the spring of 1900 at the New English Art Club, an organization with strong connections to the Slade, and she continued to show there twice yearly until 1903. In March 1903 she and Augustus had a joint exhibition at Carfax & Co., London; she had already acquired a reputation for working extremely slowly, and contributed only three pictures to her brother's forty-five. Her early art reflects her training at the Slade. The paintings are usually faintly Victorian genre scenes of women in interiors; executed in sombre earth colors, they are small and highly finished, for example, Interior with Figures (1898–9, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne) and Portrait of Mrs Atkinson (probablyc.1897–1898, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). Her drawings of that time are mostly assured, slightly restrained studies of women, for example, Winifred John in a Large Hat(c.1895–1898, National Museum and Gallery of Wales, Cardiff)—not unlike Augustus's work.

Move to France

In the autumn of 1903 Gwen John made a walking tour through France with Dorelia McNeill, later Augustus's lifelong companion. After stopping for several months in Toulouse, they arrived in Paris in February 1904; Gwen was never to leave. From this time she consciously distanced herself from her family and background, declaring England ‘quite a foreign country’. For the next decade she lived in a series of modest residences in Montparnasse, several of them the subjects of her paintings, as in A Corner of the Artist's Room in Paris(1907–9, Sheffield City Art Galleries). She had a small number of friends, usually women, though one was the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke. Her requirements were few, and she earned a meagre living as an artist's model, most notably for Auguste Rodin (1840–1917), whom she met in 1904 and for whose unfinished monument to Whistler she posed. Although an unhappy liaison with Rodin consumed much of her attention during the next several years—‘Everything interests me more than painting. I am quite frightened at my coldness towards painting which gets worse & worse’, she wrote (John to Tyrwhitt, 4 Feb 1910?, Aberystwyth, NL Wales)—she did finish at least a dozen paintings, among them several of her best-known works, such as Girl Reading at the Window (1911, Museum of Modern Art, New York), and many drawings, including the famous series of her tortoiseshell cat (c.1905–1908) and the eloquent wash drawings of Chloe Boughton-Leigh (for example, Bust of a Womanc.1910, Albright–Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York) and of ‘a lady’ (for example,Portrait of a Ladyc.1910, the Swindon collection of twentieth-century art, Swindon borough council). She also continued to exhibit at the New English Art Club (1908–11).

As her love affair with Rodin drew to a close, Gwen John focused increasingly on her art, and the next decade was a highly productive one. Her brother Augustus introduced John Quinn, the distinguished American lawyer and collector, to her work and from 1911 Quinn provided her with a stipend and purchased any picture she offered. He ultimately acquired about a dozen paintings and scores of drawings. Equally valuable was Quinn's emotional support, which he provided from the start, though the two did not actually meet until 1921. He encouraged her to view exhibitions and enlarged her acquaintanceship by introducing her to his friends, including Picasso, Braque, Matisse, André Dunoyer de Segonzac, Constantin Brancusi, Maud Gonne, Henri-Pierre Roche, and Augusta, Lady Gregory. Jeanne Robert Foster, Quinn's companion, became a close friend. Her relationship with Quinn lasted until his death in 1924 and coincided with her period of greatest artistic productivity, for which he was surely at least in part responsible.

In January 1911 Gwen John took rooms at 29 rue Terre Neuve in Meudon, the Paris suburb in which Rodin lived. There she began instruction in Roman Catholicism and was received into that church, probably early in 1913. She was commissioned by the nuns of the local chapter of the Sœurs de Charité Dominicaines de la Présentation de la Sainte Vierge de Tours to paint a series of portraits of their founder, Mère Marie Poussepin, six of which are now known (mid-1910s, one in the National Museum and Gallery of Wales, Cardiff). She executed hundreds of watercolours of church interiors, often populated by those nuns and their charges, the little girls of the Orphelinat St Joseph, all typically viewed from the rear. As she wrote, ‘I am in love with the atmosphere of Meudon Church and the people who go to church here have a charm for me (especially when I don't speak to them)’ (John to Jeanne Robert Foster, 22 Feb 1925, priv. coll.). She remained in Paris during the First World War, though she made frequent trips to the coast of Brittany, where she did a series of spontaneously executed and profoundly moving drawings of local children, including Study of a Child (late 1910s, Tate collection). Because of war restrictions, she ceased exhibiting in London, but showed in New York at the Armory show (1913) and at the Penguin Club (1918).

Apart from a few still lifes, interiors, and landscapes, the paintings of Gwen John's artistic maturity are all female portraits, most often of a model known only as ‘the convalescent’, usually of a monumental figure isolated or before an uncomplicated background, as in, for example, Young Woman Holding a Black Cat (late 1910s, early 1920s, Tate collection). The artist viewed the impassive sitter not as an individual but as ‘an affair of volumes’ (John to Tyrwhitt, n.d., 1936, Aberystwyth, NL Wales). These pictures are relatively small (the largest no more than about 35 by 26 in.), their compositions rigorously simplified. The surfaces are fresco-like, the pigment dry and chalky, and the palette severely restricted. Multiple versions of each subject were painted, often with only minor variations.

The early 1920s were years of achievement and satisfaction for Gwen John. ‘I am quite in my work now’, she told Quinn, ‘& think of nothing else. I paint till it is dark … and then I have supper and then I read about an hour and think of my painting. … I like this life very much’ (John to Quinn, 17 March 1922, New York Public Library). She displayed strong confidence in her work: ‘I was very pleased and proud of my ‘Mère Poussepin’. I thought it the best picture there, but I liked the Seurat landscape’ (ibid., 9 May 1922); and, discussing an exhibition of Cézanne's watercolours, she observed: ‘These are very good, but I prefer my own’ (Gwen John Memorial Exhibition, 3). She exhibited in the Paris salons of 1919 to 1925 and at the Sculptors' Gallery in New York in 1922. In 1920 she met the poet Arthur Symons, of whom she made drawings. John Quinn's death in 1924 closed this happy period and brought genuine financial insecurity. She painted less and, without Quinn's encouragement, was less eager to exhibit. However, in 1926 she had the largest show of her lifetime, at the New Chenil Galleries in London, and received considerable public attention. By 1930 she was represented in various public collections, including the Tate Gallery in London, the Manchester City Art Gallery, the Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery of Modern Art in Dublin, the Albright–Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, and the Art Institute of Chicago. In her later years Gwen John became increasingly solitary. She did maintain certain old friendships, and she formed one last obsessive attachment, to Véra Oumançoff, sister-in-law of the eminent neo-Thomist philosopher Jacques Maritain, and her neighbour in Meudon. This attachment was entirely one-sided and was ended by Véra about 1930, when she could no longer tolerate the painter's immoderate attentions.

Later years

By about 1930 Gwen John had ceased painting, though for several more years she made small, colourful, increasingly abstract watercolours; there is no evidence that she did anything at all after about 1933. She occasionally exhibited earlier work (at the Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh, in 1930; the Deffett Francis Art Gallery, Swansea, in 1935; and at the national eisteddfod in Fishguard, Pembrokeshire, in 1936). She purchased a derelict shack and a patch of ground at 8 rue Babie, Meudon, to which she moved in 1932; there she lived surrounded by her cats, often sleeping in her garden. Her last years are somewhat mysterious. She became increasingly withdrawn and displayed total disregard for her own well-being; Maynard Walker, who visited John in 1937, described her as living ‘like a feminine St Gerome’ (Walker to Edwin John, 6 May 1946, Aberystwyth, NL Wales). Her reclusiveness was intentional, for she considered her weaknesses to be:

1. sitting before people listening to them in an idiotic way. 2. undergoing their influence—being what they expect—demande. 3. by fear flattering them. 4. being too much touched—valuing too much their signs of friendship, or rather responding too thoughtlessly. 5. Thinking too often of people. (MS note, 26 April [1932], Gwen John MSS, Aberystwyth, NL Wales)

She still made occasional trips to Brittany; on the last of these, she fell ill and died, unmarried, in Dieppe on 18 September 1939 in the Hospice de Dieppe; her certificate does not specify a cause of death.

Posthumous reputation

Since the first major retrospective exhibition after her death, which was held at Matthiesen Ltd in London in 1946, Gwen John's reputation has steadily grown, and she has become one of the most deeply loved of British artists; her following is large and passionately devoted to her art. Much of her work has now entered the public domain: more than one-third of her paintings are now in public collections; over a thousand of her drawings belong to the National Museum and Gallery of Wales in Cardiff; and most of her letters and papers are preserved in various public collections. There are substantial holdings, both public and private, in the United States as well as in Britain. John Quinn's collection was dispersed after his death in a famous auction of 1927; most of the works by Gwen John which he owned remained in America. Many more were acquired by American collectors at the Matthiesen retrospective. There have been numerous exhibitions of her work on both sides of the Atlantic.

For many years Gwen John was chiefly identified as Augustus John's sister. He once wrote: ‘Fifty years after my death I shall be remembered as Gwen John's brother’ (M. Holroyd,Augustus John: a Biography, 1974, 61). Although his prediction has not come to pass, her stature as an artist is now most certainly greater than his. She has become, in particular, a feminist heroine. However, in truth she was far less constrained by her gender than most women of her time or, in fact, later. As a girl, she was kept at home while her younger brother was permitted to attend an art school in Tenby but from the time she went to London to enter the Slade she lived as independently as she wished. Because of her unhappy love affair with Rodin, she is often viewed as a victim, but she was in reality obdurately self-willed. She once said: ‘I think if we are to do beautiful pictures we ought to be free from family conventions & ties. … I think the family has had its day. We don't go to Heaven in families now but one by one’ (John to Tyrwhitt, n.d., c.1910, Aberystwyth, NL Wales), and she lived by that conviction.

Gwen John's art is consistently described as ‘private’, ‘quiet’, ‘reticent’. She herself said: ‘As to whether I have anything worth expressing … I may never have anything to express except this desire for a more interior life’ (John to Tyrwhitt, 4 Sept 1912?, Aberystwyth, NL Wales). Her art, apparently modest and unassuming, evokes from the viewer a powerful emotional response out of all proportion to its reticence. Augustus John said that her pictures were ‘almost painfully charged with feeling’ (perceptively adding that his own were ‘painfully empty of it’ (W. Rothenstein, Men and Memories: Recollections of William Rothenstein: 1900–1922, 1934, 65). It would be a mistake to exaggerate her importance as an artist. She was not a major historical force who influenced those after her. Although perhaps a minor master, she was surely an enduring one, possessed of genius. Gwen John herself was confident of her place. She described it, typically, with both self-deprecation and serene assurance: ‘As to me, I cannot imagine why my vision will have some value in the world—and yet I know it will—I think I will count because I am patient and recueillé’ (John to Tyrwhitt, n.d., Aberystwyth, NL Wales).

Cecily Langdale  DNB