Gwen John

Last updated: 23 February 2011

Welsh painter Gwen John lived the majority of her life in France, was model and lover to renowned sculptor Auguste Rodin and was the sister of flamboyant artist Augustus John.

Gwen John was born in 1876 in Haverfordwest, Pembrokeshire, the second of four children. The John family moved to Tenby while she was in her infancy, where her younger brother Augustus was born in 1878.

Blue plaque on Victoria Place. Photo: ceridwen on geograph.co.ukBlue plaque on Victoria Place in Haverfordwest.
Photo © ceridwen and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Gwen followed Augustus to study at the Slade School in London between the years of 1895-1898. The siblings shared living quarters during their time at the school.

In 1898 Gwen visited Paris for the first time. After her graduation she briefly worked with the highly fashionable American-born painter, artist and etcher James Whistler in Paris and studied at his Académie Carmen. She returned to London in 1899, exhibiting her work for the first time in 1900.

Three years later Gwen returned to France with friend Dorelia McNeill, who would later become Augustus's second wife. She found work as an artist's model in Paris, and lived in the city from 1904.

In contrast to her brother, Gwen was fastidious, contemplative and slow-working; her first paintings there were of cats, self-portraits and of the interior of her own room. She began modelling for Auguste Rodin in 1904, and subsequently became his lover. Despite the 36 year age gap Gwen became obsessively attached to the painter, her passion unabated in the ten year long love affair.

In 1910 she moved to the Parisian suburb of Meudon where Rodin lived and where she was to spend the rest of her life. It was in this suburb that she met the noted American art collector John Quinn who would become her patron. She also entered the Catholic Church during this period which gave the artist, inclined to self-neglect and isolation, a sense of solace, especially so as her turbulent relationship with Rodin ebbed away.

Gwen developed a unique style of painting depicting what was close to her. After the death of Rodin in 1917, her religious belief became the centre of her life. She exhibited for the first time in Paris in 1919 and did so regularly afterwards until the mid 1920s. After this time she became increasingly isolated and produced little, perhaps as a result of Quinn's death in 1924.

In 1926 she began a romantic relationship with Véra Oumançoff, though the latter ended the affair some four years later. Gwen's artistic output drastically reduced towards the end of her life, with no evidence to suggest that she produced anything in her final years.

Gwen's life ended in Dieppe in September 1939, the artist dying virtually unknown at the age of 63. She had prepared her will before her journey to the sea, a region she had visited many times, taking only this and instructions for her burial on her visit.

Though constantly overshadowed by the fame of her younger brother in her lifetime, Gwen John has become a celebrated painter of international renown. She left behind more than two hundred paintings and approximately 1,000 sketches.


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