Gwen John (1876–1939) has long been overshadowed by the larger-than-life personality of her brother, fellow painter Augustus John. But in recent years, she has ousted him from the limelight, fulfilling his prediction that 'in fifty years' time, I will be known as the brother of Gwen John'. Her portraits of unknown women sitting in quiet, unassuming interiors are charged with an introspective intensity that attests to her perfectionist, personal vision. She did not associate herself with any group or movement but was passionately independent, pursuing her own artistic aims with deep sincerity.
Her self portrait from c.1900 gives us a sense of her energy and determination. She shows herself staring assuredly out at us, hand on her waist, with enormous billowing Edwardian sleeves. At the same time, she feels aloof and distant, and the muted colours give the painting a pensive gravitas.
The work was painted when she had first exhibited at the New English Club, which was the venue favoured by many graduates from the Slade School of Fine Art in London. The Slade was the only British art school at the time that accepted female students. Gwen John entered in 1895, following Augustus. The siblings had grown up in Pembrokeshire, in Haverfordwest and then Tenby, with their widowed father. It was a modest, non-artistic background, and the move to the Slade signalled the beginning of Gwen John's artistic career.
After her time at the Slade, where she had formed enduring friendships with other female artists, she moved to Paris to study at Whistler's 'Académie Carmen'. Whistler conceived of painting as a logical discipline, claiming, 'I do not teach art, I teach the scientific application of paint and brushes'.
This teaching method was a profound influence on John and she developed a rigorous methodical approach and an eye for technical detail. She abandoned a traditional use of glazes in favour of an impasto technique, applying the paint in small, thick dabs so the picture surface shimmers like a mosaic. She prepared her canvases herself using her own method and developed a numerical system for categorising tonal values that has made her notes on colour mixtures frustratingly unintelligible to art historians. Augustus was astonished at the 'scientific method' detailed in her notebooks, saying that they made him feel 'ready to shut up shop'.
In the summer of 1903, John and her friend (her brother's lover) Dorelia McNeill decided to walk to Rome. They packed hardly any personal belongings but weighed themselves down with painting equipment and paid their way by selling portrait sketches en route. They abandoned their plans once they reached Toulouse, and John moved to Paris, where she would live for the rest of her life.
In Toulouse, John painted three portraits of Dorelia. The Student shows Dorelia lost in thought, gazing at a pile of books in front of her. We feel we have stumbled upon a moment of solitary reflection. She is in a humble, drab space, and as with all of John's portraits, we sense the presence of a far richer interior world, tantalisingly withheld from us.
In Paris, John lived in a series of rooms in Montparnasse, the bohemian quarter of Paris. She became an artist's model and began to work in Rodin's studio. Her friendship with the sculptor developed into a passionate love affair. Her letters to him reveal the intense nature of her personality: despite her shyness with strangers, she was capable of profoundly intimate and even obsessive relationships with those close to her.
She had love affairs with both men and women throughout her life, but Rodin was her greatest love, despite the 36-year age difference. Her letters to him (which she drafted and re-drafted until she was happy) are deeply passionate; she describes Rodin as 'all that is beautiful and romantic in my life'. The letters Rodin wrote to her show concern for her wellbeing and her tendency to neglect herself.
One of her greatest works, A Lady Reading, was painted in this period, in 1909–1911. The interior is her own room in Paris, and the drawings on the walls of cats are also by her. There is something almost monumental about the woman, despite her delicacy. The painting is about tranquillity and stillness, but there is also the feeling of something stirring beneath the surface. We can sense the woman's concentration; she is removed from us, absorbed in her book, enigmatic and beautiful in all her simplicity.
In 1913, John moved to the suburb of Meudon, living in an upstairs flat. She was fond of the solitude and (as Rodin worried about) lived a frugal life. She rarely exhibited her work and would sell pieces for less than the client was offering. In the same year, she converted to Roman Catholicism. She experienced her faith in an intensely personal way, matched only by her devotion to her art. 'My religion and my art, these are my life,' she said.
Her poky, barren room in Meudon became the subject of her paintings. Interior, painted in 1924, awash with white and pale grey, shows a table laid beneath a high attic window. The humble space is made beautiful by the rich quality of light sparkling on the table top and shining on the walls.
John also painted many portraits of the local nuns at Meudon, such as A Young Nun, which gently exaggerates the arms and the hands to create a sense of monumentality. The woman is encased within her habit, which is painted with resolute solidity, almost threatening to swallow her identity. But her delicate, sensitively rendered face stares thoughtfully out at us and infuses the painting with spirituality.
The artist moved to a shack built on a piece of wasteland in 1926 and lived like a hermit with her beloved cats. It was these later reclusive years, and her reluctance to exhibit or sell work in her lifetime, that meant that after her death in 1939 she was largely forgotten.
In recent years, she has been the subject of numerous books and exhibitions and is celebrated as an important twentieth-century British artist. It is the balance between calm introspection and an intensity of presence that makes her work so enticing. The women she painted have inner worlds; they elevate their humble rooms with their rich, mysterious thoughts. Critic Lisa Tickner thinks that John's painting came 'as close as perhaps an image can do to picturing consciousness'.
Catherine Jamieson, undergraduate at the University of Oxford and winner of Write on Art 2018
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