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Gwen John's Portrait Paintings

Updated: Oct 10, 2023

Although Gwen John as a feminine artist was overshadowed during her lifetime by her brother Augustus John and her lover Auguste Rodin, her reputation has grown steadily since her death.

Gwen John's earliest surviving work dates from her nineteenth year. While, 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.

The Welsh artist Gwendolen Mary John (22 June 1876 – 18 September 1939) worked in France for most of her career, John had only one solo exhibition in her lifetime, at the New Chenil Galleries in London in 1926.

On 22 June 1876, Gwen John was born in Haverfordwest, Wales, the second of four children of Edwin William John and his wife Augusta.

Augusta was an amateur watercolorist, and both parents encouraged the children's interest in literature and art.

Following Gwen's mother's premature death in 1884, the family moved to Tenby in Pembroke Shire, Wales, where the early education of Gwen and her sister Winifred was provided by governesses.

Girl with a Cat, between 1918 and 1922, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Girl with a Cat, between 1918 and 1922, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Gwen John Art Style

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 affect me beyond reason."

Gwen John's style is reflected clearly in her color palette, negative spaces, and subject expressions.

John's early paintings such as Portrait of Mrs. Atkinson, Young Woman with a Violin, and Interior with Figures are works painted in a traditional style characterized by subdued color and transparent glazes.

Gwen John's paintings, mainly portraits of anonymous female sitters, are rendered in a range of closely related tones. The negative space around Gwen John's subjects is very characteristic of her work.

With a marvelous color palette and expressive brushwork, Gwen's portraits stand out uniquely to represent an artistic form that lies between impressionism and neo-impressionism.

Gwen John's Self-Portrait (1902)
Gwen John's Self-Portrait (1902)

Gwen John's Career

From 1895 to 1898, Gwen John studied at the Slade School of Art. John won the Melvill Nettleship Prize for Figure Composition in her final year at Slade.

It was the only art school in the United Kingdom that allowed female students, although there was generally no mixing of men and women on the grounds, in classes, or even in corridors.

Like Gwen John's younger brother, Augustus, who had begun his studies there in 1894, Gwen John studied figure drawing under Henry Tonks. During this period, Gwen John and Augustus shared living quarters and further reduced their expenses by subsisting on a diet of nuts and fruit.

In 1898, Gwen John made her first visit to Paris with two friends from the Slade, and while there she studied under James McNeill Whistler at his school, Académie Carmen.

Gwen John returned to London in 1899 and exhibited her work for the first time in 1900, at the New English Art Club (NEAC).

In 1904, the two went to Paris, where John found work as an artist's model, mostly for women artists. In that same year, she began modeling for the sculptor Auguste Rodin and became his lover after being introduced by Hilda Flodin.

Rodin used John as a model for a muse in his unfinished monument to Whistler.

Gwen John's devotion to 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.

In 1910 Gwen found living quarters in Meudon, a suburb of Paris where she would remain for the rest of her life.

As John's affair with Rodin drew to a close, John sought comfort in Catholicism, and around 1913 she was received into the Church.

John's notebooks of the period include meditations and prayers; she wrote of her desire to be "God's little artist" and to "become a saint."

John wrote in one of her letters in 1912: "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".

During her years in Paris, John met many of the leading artistic personalities of her time, including Matisse, Picasso, Brâncuși, and Rainer Maria Rilke. She preferred to work in solitude.

About 1913, as an obligation to the Dominican Sisters of Charity at Meudon, Gwen John began a series of painted portraits of Mère Marie Poussepin (1653–1744), the founder of their order.

These paintings, based on a prayer card, established a format—the female figure in a three-quarter-length seated pose—which became characteristic of her mature style.

John wrote in 1911: "I paint a good deal, but I don't often get a picture done—that requires, for me, a very long time of a quiet mind, and never to think of exhibitions."

Although she participated in exhibitions fairly regularly, her perfectionism produced in her a marked ambivalence toward exhibiting.

John stopped exhibiting at the NEAC in 1911 but gained an important patron in John Quinn, an American art collector who, from 1910 until his death in 1924, purchased the majority of the works that Gwen John sold.

Gwen John 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.

Quinn's support freed John from having to work as a model and enabled her to devote herself to her work.

In 1913, one of her paintings was included in the seminal Armory Show in New York, which Quinn assisted in organizing.

John exhibited in Paris for the first time in 1919 at the Salon d'Automne, and exhibited regularly until the mid-1920s.

Her attitude toward her work was both self-effacing and confident. After viewing an exhibition of watercolors by Cézanne she remarked: "These are very good, but I prefer my own."

The Pilgrim, ca. 1915–1925, Yale Center for British Art
The Pilgrim, ca. 1915–1925, Yale Center for British Art

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.

Gwen John also met Maritain's sister-in-law, Véra Oumançoff, with whom she formed her last romantic relationship, which lasted until 1930.

On 10 September 1939, she wrote her will and then traveled to Dieppe, where she collapsed and was hospitalized. Gwen John died there on 18 September 1939 and was buried in Janval Cemetery.

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