by Roderick Conway Morris

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True Portrait of a Singular Woman

By Roderick Conway Morris
CHICHESTER 4 August 2023
Musée Rodin
Self portrait with a Letter
by Gwen John, c.1907-9



'There are people, like plants who cannot flourish in the cold, and I want to flourish,' wrote Gwen John to her artist brother Augustus, declaring her intention of remaining in Paris. She had first gone there in 1898 and, having definitively settled in the city in 1904, stayed in France for the rest of her life.

And flourish she did as an artist in her adopted country, as is demonstrated by a splendid exhibition, 'Gwen John: Art and Life in London and Paris', at Pallant House in Chichester. It is curated by Alicia Foster, who is also the author of a fascinating, handsomely illustrated new book about the artist, which not only illuminates Gwen John's work and personality as never before but dispels a number of legends that have grown up around her life.

Gwen was born into a middle-class family in West Wales in 1876, the second of four siblings, the last three of whom displayed artistic talents, both Gwen and Augustus becoming painters and Winifred a violinist. The family moved permanently to Tenby after the death of the children's mother, Augusta, when Gwen was eight years old. Augusta had been an amateur artist, having studied in London. In one of Gwen's earliest surviving pictures, 'Landscape at Tenby with Figures', of a woman in black with a little girl gazing up at her, Winifred modelled for the woman, yet it seems likely that the picture was a poignant tribute to their painter mother.

Gwen's brother Augustus had the good fortune to be allowed to depart for the Slade School of Fine Art in London (founded in 1871) in 1894 at the age of sixteen. Gwen had to wait until the following year to join him there at the age of nineteen. The rigorous, but progressive, training she received under the likes of Professor Frederick Brown and Henry Tonks, especially in the thoughtful and meticulous planning of every piece, stayed with her for the rest of her career. She also made firm female friendships, notably with Ida Nettleship (who was to marry Augustus in 1901) and Ursula Tyrwhitt. She won prizes while at the School and when she showed a self-portrait at an exhibition there in 1902, Brown immediately snapped it up for his personal collection (it is now at the Tate).

Shortly after she graduated in 1898 Gwen went to Paris, where she attended Whistler's short-lived Académie Carmen in Montparnasse. Over the next six years she shuttled between London and Paris, studying, posing as model, giving art lessons and pursuing an affair with her fellow aspiring artist Ambrose McEvoy, with whom she exhibited for the first time at the New English Art Club in 1900. In 1903, Gwen met Dorothy McNeill, a young typist from Camberwell, who was studying art at night school. Gwen introduced her to Augustus, who became entranced by her. Dorelia, as she became known, was to end up living in a ménage à trois with Augustus and Ida, until his wife died after giving birth to their fifth child in 1907. Dorelia remained Augustus's model and muse until his death in 1961.

In the autumn of 1903 Gwen and Dorelia set out on foot to Rome from Bordeaux. They only got as far as Toulouse, where they wintered. During this period Gwen painted Dorelia, the first of her many remarkable portraits of women. Her travelling companion later recalled that Gwen 'always managed to look elegant. She wasn't at all careless of her appearance; in fact, rather vain. She also much appreciated the good food and wine to be had in that part of France.'

Gwen and Dorelia returned to Paris in the spring of the following year and, while the latter returned to England, Gwen took up permanent residence in the French capital. In these early years there she made a living as a model. Her brother Augustus suggested she approach the famous sculptor Auguste Rodin, by then in his early sixties, at his studio at Meudon on the outskirts of Paris. He already had some 90 models on his files but he took to her and she was soon sitting for him, frequently in nude poses and he chose her as the nude model for a commission for a monument to Whistler. They became lovers and he encouraged her painting and drawing but they never lived together. In 1911 she moved to Meudon, but continued to commute to her studio in the city.

During the early period with Rodin she wrote to him saying she wanted her paintings to be 'like Dutch paintings in subject'. Her interest in such interiors went back to her student days when she painted 'A Woman Seated at a Table and A Man tuning a Violin' after the 17th-century Dutch master Gabriel Metsu's canvas at the National Gallery, her version of the work being striking not least for the panache of her brushwork. Gwen now produced a series of powerfully atmospheric contemporary interiors, sometimes including a single female figure.

This genre was also popular with the so-called Intimistes at that time, led by Vuillard and Bonnard, and Gwen's affinity with the former was commented upon. She had in common with him a subtle, patterned use of colours and minute gradations in shades, or 'passages' between them, yet her style of painting remained essentially self-developed and quite distinct. As time went on her canvases tended to become smaller, yet retained what one critic called their 'monumental design'.

In 1910 Gwen's fortunes were transformed by her brother's introduction to John Quinn, who was already buying works by Augustus. Between then and his death in 1924 this wealthy American lawyer and collector was willing to purchase almost anything that Gwen produced. It was through Quinn that her works appeared at the 1913 Armory exhibition along with the other modernist greats, from Manet, Gauguin, Monet and Renoir to Cezanne, Van Gogh, Seurat and Braque, and were made known in the United States, where some of her finest works remain to this day.

By 1911 Gwen's affair with Rodin was faltering and although it continued intermittently for another couple of years it clearly resulted in a personal crisis. She began to take religious instruction from the local Curé in Meudon and by the beginning of 1913 she was fully received into the Catholic church. One consequence of this was that Gwen embarked on painting a series of remarkable portraits of nuns at a local convent who ran an orphanage in Meudon. She even made, from a tiny prayer card, a series of full-scale posthumous portraits of the order's founder Mère Poussepin (1653-1744). One of these was bought, with Gwen's approval, by Quinn, from the nuns in 1920. These pictures stimulated a further development in her painting technique, using light tones and constructing the image from what she described as 'blobs' and adding glue and chalk to the paint to achieve more luminosity and texture.

Nonetheless, the artist made for a curious kind of Catholic. When the Pope died she showed more concern over the passing of a neighbour, saying: 'I knew her. I didn't know the Pope. They'll soon find another Pope.' She also annoyed the Curé by sketching the congregation during Mass. At the same time, being an ordinary Catholic was not quite enough for her and she apparently harboured aspirations of beatification, writing a note to herself saying: 'Ask God to strengthen your will to be a great saint.' However, in the end everything came back to her fruitful devotion to her art. As she noted on another occasion: 'I must be a saint too. I must be a saint in my work.'

During the last decade of her life, her failing health began to make difficult the immense effort required to create her wonderful richly-layered paintings. In the autumn of 1939 she went to Dieppe, perhaps to revive her energies, but shortly afterwards died in a local hospital on 18 September at 63. Sadly, her grave at the Cimitière Javal in Dieppe was lost when the site was transformed into a French military cemetery.

After the war a number of myths grew up around the artist, fostered by her long absence from Britain and summarised in 1952 by the then director of the Tate, John Rothenstein, who wrote: 'By nature a recluse, devoid of ambition, and uninterested in the appreciation of any save a few friends, she was always reluctant to exhibit.' Nothing could have been further from the truth, as is amply proved by Alicia Foster in both the exhibition and her revelatory book. Gwen John knew the value of her work, was rightly proud of it and exhibited regularly in London and then Paris. For here was the artist who, when shown some watercolours by Cezanne, whom she much admired, not unreasonably remarked: 'These are very good, but I prefer my own.'

Gwen John: Art and Life in London and Paris; Pallant House, Chichester; 13 May - 8 October

Gwen John: Art and Life in London and Paris by Alicia Foster, Thames & Hudson, 2023

First published: The Lady

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024