Your place to explore new perspectives on British art from 1900 to now. Through interviews, films, image galleries and essays, we uncover the creative lives of the people behind the art on our walls.
10 Things you need to know about Gwen John
[ Artist in Focus )
Gwen John was a Welsh painter who is best known for her intimate, sensitive portraits and still life paintings. Our exhibition, Gwen John: Art and Life in London and Paris, questions the myths that surround Gwen and take another look at her work in the context of international modernist artists. Here are 10 things you need to know about this fascinating artist:
1) Gwen John was born in Haverfordwest, Wales in 1876.
She was the second of four children and was encouraged to pursue interests in literature and art. Her father, Edwin, was a solicitor and her mother, Augusta, was an amateur watercolour artist. Due to ill health, Augusta did not spend much time with her children and died in 1884 when Gwen was just eight. Afterwards, the family moved to nearby Tenby, where Gwen started painting some of her earliest known works.
Gwen John, Landscape at Tenby with Figures, c.1896/7, Oil on Board, Tenby Museum and Art Gallery Collection.
2) Between 1895 and 1898 Gwen John studied at the Slade School of Art in London.
The Slade was unique at the time in admitting women alongside men and gave Gwen the opportunity to study under Frederick Brown and Henry Tonks. Her time at the school shaped her career, but just as influential were the relationships she developed with fellow students, such as Ida Nettleship, Gwen Salmond, Ambrose McEvoy and Ursula Tyrwhitt.
3) Gwen John moved to Paris in 1904.
In 1898, Gwen spent six months at James McNeil Whistler’s school, studying under the famous artist and then moved permanently to the city in 1904. Gwen mixed in the city’s bohemian artistic circles and met artists such as Matisse, Picasso, Braque and most influentially, August Rodin. She worked as a model for several artists, including Rodin, to support herself, while creating her own work.
Gwen John, A Corner of the Artist’s Room in Paris, c.1907-9, Oil on canvas, Sheffield Museums Trust.
4) Gwen John was a modernist artist with her own unique style.
She developed a distinctive style that was characterized by strong, simple forms and a muted colour palette. Although her work was part of the emerging modernism of the early 20th century, Gwen did not identify with any particular group of artists. She was a perfectionist and often produced her work slowly, applying the paint in small deliberate strokes. Gwen even created her own unique numerical system for identifying the colours and tones she mixed herself, allowing her to use them across her works. She mixed materials such as chalk into her paint and the canvas ground to create an opaque, textural, yet luminous effect.
5) Gwen John’s younger brother was the artist, Augustus John.
Gwen and Augustus had a close relationship. They attended the Slade at the same time, lived together to save money during their studies and shared social circles. Augustus married Gwen’s close friend, Ida Nettleship in 1901 and had a lifelong relationship with her friend, Dorelia McNeill. Gwen is often overshadowed by her flamboyant brother, who became one of the country’s best-known artists, particularly as a striking portrait painter. Augustus recognised the skill of his sister’s work and even predicted that ‘in fifty years’ time, I will be known as the brother of Gwen John’.
Gwen John, Dorelia in a Black Dress, 1903-4, Oil on canvas, 73 x 48.9 cm, Tate: Presented by the Trustees of the Duveen Paintings Fund 1949, Tate.
6) Gwen John was the muse and lover of the sculptor Auguste Rodin.
Gwen started modelling for Rodin in 1904 and became his muse for a sculpture he had been commissioned to commemorate Whistler. She fell in love with him and they had a passionate and intense affair that lasted around two years. Gwen was a fervent letter writer and over ten years wrote thousands of letters to Rodin. She was heartbroken by the breakdown of their relationship. Rodin, 35 years her senior, quickly moved on to his next model, stopped seeing Gwen and did not respond to her letters. After the breakup Gwen moved to Meudon, a small town outside Paris, where she lived in solitude, focussing on her art.
7) Despite her talent, Gwen John often struggled to make a living as an artist.
She was often overlooked by critics and collectors and did not often exhibit her work. Her main supporter from 1910 until his death in 1924 was John Quinn, an American art collector. Quinn bought a lot of Gwen’s output during this period, giving her a stable source of income. She was able to stop working as a model and focus on her own work. Quinn’s death brought a period of financial instability that lasted until her death in 1939.
Gwen John, Cat, c.1904-8, Graphite and watercolour on paper, Tate.
8) Gwen John adored cats.
Gwen had many cats during her life. Her first was a tortoiseshell named Edgar Quinet after the Paris street where she lived, who appears in many of her sketches. When she (it was a female cat) disappeared in 1908 she even wrote a poem in her memory. With eye for detail and flowing lines, Gwen was able to bring out the personalities of her cats, creating a remarkable presence in her works.
9) Gwen John converted to Catholicism in 1913.
Her conversion marked an important turning point in her art. Since around 1910 she had started to experiment with bringing faith into her work and recreating religious works from the past. In A Lady Reading (1911), for example, there are clear similarities with Albrecht Durer’s Madonna. Some of Gwen’s most impressive works emerged in this period. In 1913 she was asked to paint the founder of an order of nuns (Soeurs de Charité Dominicaines de la Présentation de la Sainte Vierge de Tours), Mère Poussepin, and the series of six works she produced are some of her best. With subtle tonality, an almost smirking smile and engaging, intelligent eyes, it is a remarkable achievement.
Gwen John, Mère Poussepin, 1915-20, Oil on canvas, The Henry Barber Trust, The Barber Institute of Fine Art, University of Birmingham.
10) Gwen John died in Dieppe, France in 1939 aged 63.
Previously overlooked, Gwen John’s work is now recognised and celebrated. She is remembered as one of the most talented and influential female artists of the 20th century, and her work continues to inspire and captivate audiences around the world.
Gwen John: Art and Life in London and Paris runs from 13 May to 8 October 2023.