Welsh artist Gwen John is widely adored for her tranquil portraits, which are mainly of women. Born in Haverfordwest, she lived mostly in France, where she created a rich body of work despite several upheavals in her personal life. Michèle Kieffer looks at her life, and the placid beauty of her work.
A bohemian lifestyle, years of squatting, dramatic love affairs and finally a conversion to Christianity; some of the anecdotes surrounding Gwen John’s life are surely situated somewhere between fact and fiction. Whilst her life story is fascinating and exciting, her body of work is suffused with an atmosphere of harmony and serenity. Concentrating almost exclusively on interior settings and portraits, more precisely portraits of women, John captures the calm of the represented moment. She painted slowly and with a reduced palette, two facts that symbolize the quiet dialogue between the sitter and the artist. Her oil paintings concentrate on seated, often anonymous, women in a three-quarter view, whereas her sketches and watercolour paintings favoured numerous subjects such as churchgoers, people on the train, the artist’s room or her cats. Gwen John’s artistic strength did not lie within a well-developed technique, but in her refined way of capturing emotions and moods. Nude Girl from 1909-10 (below right) for example is a three-quarter portrait of a young, naked woman. She is sitting on a chair, a fact that is almost not recognizable because of the perspective. The model looks the viewer straight in the eyes. Her glance and posture are open and confidant, but at the same time fragile.
Born and bred in Wales, Gwendolen Mary John spent almost all of her adult life in England and France. In 1895, at the age of 19, she followed her brother Augustus John to the renowned Slade School of Art in London. She found a fertile environment that challenged her and her artistic skills, which was not a given for a women around the turn of the century. The siblings lived in poor conditions and became known, in the broadest sense, for their bohemian life style. After squatting for several years in an abandoned building, John and her friend Dorelia McNeil (who would later become Augustus’ second wife) made plans to walk to Rome, financing themselves by selling their paintings on the way. They made it to Toulouse and soon moved to Paris, where it was easier for young women to earn a living.
Gwen John found work as a model for August Rodin, an encounter that would change her life. Deeply impressed by the accomplished sculptor, who was almost 40 years her senior, John became his lover. She was strongly, some sources would even say obsessively, attached to the artist, whereas Rodin was quickly overwhelmed and eager to end their relationship. For over a decade, John wrote letters to her former companion on a daily basis. Rodin’s statue Whistler’s Muse testifies of the relationship with John, who served as the model for the masterpiece.
With the intense liaison ending in 1910, John moved to Meudon, a small village in the Parisian banlieue, where she would stay until the end of her days. Soon after she settled in, she met the American lawyer and collector John Quinn, who encouraged and motivated her emotionally as well as financially. This support influenced her creative process. John lived a rather isolated life in Meudon but her work seemed to flourish under the calmer circumstances and the spirituality she found in the Catholic Church. In 1913, the artist was asked by a local convent to paint the portrait of their founder, Mère Marie Poussepin (1653-1744). From 1913 to 1920 she worked on the project, using a prayer card and later nuns of the convent as a model. Six versions of the portrait are known today, all immersing Mère Poussepin in golden light. The portraits reflect a strong, intelligent, warm and collected woman. With as little decorum as possible and a reduced choice of tones, Gwen John captures the very essence of what she thinks a mother superior should represent.
With the death of her patron John Quinn, the artist worked less and less. After several years of self-neglect, Gwen John passed away on a trip to Dieppe in 1939. She rose to fame only after her death and is now presented in major collections such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Tate Gallery.
Volcanic Iceland Epic Trip
meet our Local Insider
HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN A GUIDE?
WHAT DO YOU LOVE ABOUT YOUR JOB?
It's the personal contact, the personal experiences. I love meeting people from all over the world... I really like getting to know everyone and feeling like I'm traveling with a group of friends.
WHAT DESTINATION IS ON YOUR TRAVEL BUCKET-LIST?
I have so many places on my list, but I would really lobe to go to Africa. I consider myself an “adventure girl” and Africa feels like the ULTIMATE adventure!
Every CULTURE TRIP Small-group adventure is led by a Local Insider just like Hanna.
KEEN TO EXPLORE THE WORLD?
Connect with like-minded people on our premium trips curated by local insiders and with care for the world
Since you are here, we would like to share our vision for the future of travel - and the direction Culture Trip is moving in.
Culture Trip launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful — and this is still in our DNA today. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes certain places and communities so special.
Increasingly we believe the world needs more meaningful, real-life connections between curious travellers keen to explore the world in a more responsible way. That is why we have intensively curated a collection of premium small-group trips as an invitation to meet and connect with new, like-minded people for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in three categories: Culture Trips, Rail Trips and Private Trips. Our Trips are suitable for both solo travelers, couples and friends who want to explore the world together.
Culture Trips are deeply immersive 5 to 16 days itineraries, that combine authentic local experiences, exciting activities and 4-5* accommodation to look forward to at the end of each day. Our Rail Trips are our most planet-friendly itineraries that invite you to take the scenic route, relax whilst getting under the skin of a destination. Our Private Trips are fully tailored itineraries, curated by our Travel Experts specifically for you, your friends or your family.
We know that many of you worry about the environmental impact of travel and are looking for ways of expanding horizons in ways that do minimal harm - and may even bring benefits. We are committed to go as far as possible in curating our trips with care for the planet. That is why all of our trips are flightless in destination, fully carbon offset - and we have ambitious plans to be net zero in the very near future.