‘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 recueilli in some degree’
Gwen John, Letter to Ursula Tyrwhitt (4 Feb 1930)
As you ascend the marble staircase which dominates the entrance hall of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, you will find three doorways leading into the art galleries. Through the door on the far right stands the early 20th century art gallery, where academy portraits sit alongside ‘Love on the Moor’, Stanley Spencer’s Bosch-like vision of an English town park in nauseating green. In amongst all this it is easy to overlook a painting, little bigger than a sheet of paper, which sits near the doorway to another gallery: its palette is muted pinks and blues; the paint is applied sparingly, almost faintly, while its subject is a young girl reading a letter.
The Convalescent (c. 1918 – 1919) is typical of much Gwen John’s work – a three quarter length portraits of a female sitters set against a simple interior, sometimes accompanied by a cat. Her oil paintings – many of which are housed in the National Museum of Wales – are enigmatic, hazy, but not dull; as one critic put it, ‘radiant with a quiet luminosity’. It is that very quiet, interior focus that makes her work so mesmerises. It stands in stark contrast to the style of her extraverted brother (to put it mildly), the artist Augustus John. Where Augustus’s work was gaudy, hers is muted, best characterised by the French term ‘recueilli’. Contemplative.
The Convalescent (c. 1918-1919), Fitzwilliam Museum
Perhaps as a means of contrast to the Bohemian Augustus, Gwen John had to be represented as a recluse, someone who was happier in the company of her cats, and set apart from the society and culture of her time. This interpretation of her life stems from a letter of hers, in which she expresses the ‘desire for a more interior’ to a friend came to define the reading of her work, though her meaning is rather more complex than this phrase suggests.
For a time, critics considered her career as ‘unimportant’; she was simply a one off, not connected to the development of art in any way. This interpretation has now been widely dismissed. Critics such as Alicia Foster point to her letters, which to reveal a Gwen John who was well-aware and critical of contemporary artists, ruthless enough to value art above all else, and single-minded in her pursuit of the artistic life. There are still hints of her work in the paintings of Lucien Freud, and the 2016 winner of the BP Portrait Prize, Girl in a Liberty Dress. It would seem as if Augustus John’s prediction that ‘”In 50 years’ time I will be known as the brother of Gwen John’ is coming to pass.
Self Portrait (1902), Tate
Gwen John was born in Haverfordwest in Pembrokeshire in 1876. Her mother, herself an amateur artist, died when Gwen was three and the family then moved to Tenby. Like her brother she studied at the then fashionable Slade Art School in London, before moving to Paris in 1904, where women could more easily earn money as professional artists. There she lived a Bohemian lifestyle in Montparnasse – discussing literature and visiting the galleries. She supported her artwork by posing as artist’s model, and through this work she met Auguste Rodin and embarked on a passionate, if short lived, affair.
John’s early work established the subjects that would come to dominate her later work – women, identity and religion. Most of her paintings of women used unnamed models, although we know that many of the models she used in her female portraits were fellow friends and artists. John differs significantly from her contemporaries in how portrays these women. In John’s paintings, the models often adopt artificial poses, poses that her brush has sought to heighten. Her models dominate their surroundings; the backdrop is always minimal, and John delicately details their facial features, emphasising their individuality. In many of these paintings, the women look directly out, fixing the viewer with an expression that seems to register an awareness of being looked at.
Chloë Brompton-Leigh (c. 1908), Tate
Another significant subject of her work are interiors. Interiors had become a significant subject for artists by the turn of the century. Her series of paintings entitled A Corner of the Artist’s Room in Paris (c. 1907-09) show a wicker chain and pine writing desk beside the window, which stands under the eaves of a sparsely furnished room – all symbols, almost clichés of artistic living. In contrast to the stillness evoked by Vilhelm Hammershoi’s work, her discarded possessions – a blue dress and parasol – produce the sensation that the artist has just the room. It is the minimalism of the room which is most striking. While paintings of domestic interiors were common among the Camden Town Group, it is only John who has taken the domestic space and turned it into suitable site for a woman’s artist’s work, free from the clutter of ‘family conventions and ties’ which she felt would not allow her to ‘do beautiful pictures’.
In adopting this attitude John comes across as some form of artistic ascetic. In a telling moment, she encouraged Dorelia McNeill, her friend who was then being pursued by her brother, to leave her Belgian lover and join Augustus and his wife, Ida Nettles, in a ménage-a-trois for the sake of his artistic development – she was clearly a believer in love for art’s sake. In terms of her own relationships, Augustus John noted that ‘her passions for both men and women were outrageous and irrational’. Rodin was an artistic inspiration for her, as well as a fierce devotion. “Love is my illness,” she told him, “and there is no cure till you come.” Under his influence, she appeared to develop her skills as an observer and her discipline as an artistic, but she also exhausted him (he was thirty-six years older than her after all).
A Corner of the Artist’s Room in Paris (c. 1907-09), National Museum of Wales
At around the same time as her relationship with Rodin was ending, John moved to Meudon, an artistic community on the outskirts of Paris. She then seems to have diverted all her affection into her cats, and subsumed her passion into the discipline of religion. In the same year in which she converted to Catholicism, she created one of her most significant works, the portrait of Mere Marie Poussepin (1913), the founder of the Dominican Sisters of Charity of Meudon. She returned to the subject again and again, altering the composition and changing the expression of the Sister. Perhaps John was fascinated by the figure of a powerful woman of the Church who was, like her, an ascetic. By the 1910s, art and religion had become the whole of her existence. John would sit at the back of the church sketching her fellow churchgoers from the side or back view, and would later develop the drawings into minimal watercolours, suggestive of Japanese prints. At a time when the Cult of the Virgin Mary dominated French art, her watercolours became increasing economical.
Mere Poussepin (c. 1913-1915), Barber Institute
Little Girl Wearing a Straw Hat (c. 1910-1930), Glynn Vivian Gallery
‘I don’t think we change, but we disappear sometimes’. From 1930 to 1939, Gwen John lived in seclusion. On the 1st September, knowing she was ill, she took the train to Dieppe, which reminded her of the coast of her native Pembrokeshire. She collapsed in the street there, and was taken to a hospice where she died on 18th September. Michael Holroyd characterised the lives of both John siblings as ‘exuberance with melancholy’, a sentiment which seem particularly fitting in Gwen’s case. Ultimately, she did die alone, and even the whereabouts of her grave were not known until recently. If she did not quite sacrifice relationships, then she certainly seems to have concluded that they were a worthy sacrifice for her art, and it was her art that mattered to her above all else.