In one painting, a wicker chair stands at an angle by a window, below a sloping attic roof. Lace curtains hang to the ground, the light filtering through; a parasol, a shawl, and a bunch of flowers on the table suggest a trip to the exterior that we cannot see. In a second work, painted like the first between 1907 and 1909, the viewpoint is slightly farther back. There is more space in the room and the window is open—or rather half open, revealing the green of trees outside. A coat suggests a walk; an open book hints at quiet reading. The comfortable cushion, the parasol, the recently picked flowers, and the book all imply a person. These are not empty rooms. Nor are they paintings of absence: we are made keenly aware of the artist, brush in hand, looking and working. The titles have a brusque firmness, their repetition and difference reflecting the works themselves: A Corner of the Artist’s Room in Paris and A Corner of the Artist’s Room in Paris (with Open Window).
Gwen John was a painter of rooms, an interiorist. She was far from alone in this and can be persuasively grouped with Vuillard and Bonnard. She also shared with Vuillard a concern for delicate shades and tones and for borderlines between colors. The literary equivalent, Alicia Foster writes in Gwen John: Art and Life in London and Paris, is found in the poetry of Paul Verlaine, specifically in his “Art Poétique” of 1882: “Pas la couleur, rien que la nuance!” For John and Vuillard, Foster writes, “making tone the centre of art was more than just a trend of the period or a personal preference. It was the way in which painting attained the heights, the power, of poetry.” It is typical of Foster’s attention to detail that she points out that John’s friend Arthur Symons had translated “Art Poétique” and that John possessed a volume of Verlaine’s poems. Similarly Foster notes a chain of links, through Rilke and the family of Ida Nettleship, the wife of John’s brother Augustus, to the Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershøi, whose interiors, with their restricted shades, are “sometimes empty apart from sunlight shining through a window and patterning the floor.”
John is presented throughout Foster’s book as embedded in such webs of connections. Far from being a recluse cut off from the world, as she has often been described, she is shown as keenly alert to contemporary trends and ideas. Since the late nineteenth century “the room” had gathered an accretion of meaning. For the Symbolists, it was an expression of the interior life; for the Impressionists, a setting for modern living; for Walter Sickert and the Camden Town Group of artists (Augustus was a member for a short time), rented rooms were the last, often squalid, refuge of people hanging on to life. For Rilke, a close friend of John’s in her youth, the room was like the experience of life itself:
For if we think of the existence of the individual as a larger or smaller room, it appears evident that most people learn to know only a corner of their room, a place by the window, a strip of the floor on which they walk up and down. Thus they have a certain security.
While she was free to wander, to explore beyond the open window, a room of her own gave John this security and a place to work in peace. She had no private income; her life was precarious and she needed to work for her living, whether as an artist or a model. That was true for many women writers and artists. Foster sets John firmly in the story of women’s struggle to become professional artists in the early twentieth century and to forge their own place in an art world dominated by men. This is a subject she knows well. Her previous books include Tate Women Artists (2004), the first survey of the more than two hundred women in the Tate collection, as well as an earlier monograph on Gwen John and a book on Nina Hamnett. In 2019 her catalog for the exhibition “Radical Women: Jessica Dismorr and Her Contemporaries” at the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester—where an exhibition, also called “Gwen John: Art and Life in London and Paris,” is now on view to coincide with the publication of the book—shone a new light on women artists in movements from the Rhythm Group and Vorticism to 1930s abstraction. (In a note, Foster comments that “rather appropriately” a portrait of Gwen by Augustus appears on the 1991 Penguin edition of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, first published in 1929.)
In 1895, aged nineteen, John left her childhood home in Tenby, South Wales, to go to London, ostensibly to a finishing school in Bayswater. Once there she turned on her heel, left sedate Bayswater for the mixed, noisy milieu of Euston Square, and enrolled at the Slade School of Fine Art, where Augustus was already studying. Over the next few years, she lived at a series of addresses in Bloomsbury and Fitzrovia, “a hinterland of cheap flats, boarding houses and derelict buildings.”
Slade friends were important over the course of her life, especially Nettleship, who married Augustus in 1901, and Ursula Tyrwhitt, to whom she wrote urgent, sharp letters clarifying her own ideas. But the student neighborhood was also full of anarchist groups and political exiles from Russia and France. The atmosphere was one of rebellion and intense arguments about political and sexual freedom: it was the decade of the Oscar Wilde trial as well as the publication of Havelock Ellis’s textbook on homosexuality and Freud’s theories of desire. John, Foster notes, later possessed a “worn and well read” volume on Freud’s ideas of sexuality. Describing the Slade days, she notes that the lampoons of the “New Woman”—hair disheveled, smoking cigarettes, surrounded by piles of books—was “a response to the existence of women like Gwen John who were living independently, engaged in serious work, moving around the city alone rather than safely ensconced at home sunk in a round of domestic duties.”
The Slade was less formal than the Royal Academy schools, and John lapped up the interest in French modernism, the advocacy of vigorous line drawing, and the opportunity, unusual for the time, for women to work in a life room—though the male models were decorously draped. In life studies John was drawn to the serious training in anatomy recommended by the tutor Henry Tonks (a former surgeon as well as an artist). Toward the end of her life, she still owned a book on anatomy and in 1921 listed the measurements to be taken in making a portrait, “jaw limit to muscle line. muscle line to square of chin. square of chin to muscle line,” and so on. With similar rigor, in her determination to master precision of tone she came up with a numerical system, copying passages from Hogarth’s writing “on the relation of space and form to tonal values” in The Analysis of Beauty and on his use of numbers for shading. She developed her own numerical system later in the 1920s, using a mathematical device that she described as “a disc with perhaps 85,000 numbers.” With this, she noted, “I can now find the simultaneous contrast, successive contrast, or mixed contrast of any colour or tone.” It is extraordinary, when one looks at her subtle, luminous paintings, to think of the fiercely intellectual planning that lies beneath them.
Augustus John remembered his sister as by nature “exuberant.” “She was always so,” he wrote, “latterly in a tragic way. She wasn’t chaste or subdued, but amorous and proud. She didn’t steal through life but preserved a haughty independence which some people mistook for humility.” Her exuberance, and her despair, were brought out in Sue Roe’s lively Gwen John: A Painter’s Life (2001), but Foster makes us think again, directing readers more firmly to the realm of ideas, asking at every point, What did she learn? and What did this mean for her art? Of special interest, for example, is the analysis of John’s personal library, now in the National Museum of Wales, which ranged from books on Holbein and Van Gogh to Walter Pater’s Imaginary Portraits and Léon Werth’s history of modernism, from the novels of Dostoevsky, Balzac, and Zola and the poetry of Baudelaire and Verlaine to the philosophy of Bergson, Nietzsche, and the Catholic thinker Jacques Maritain. John’s intellectual life was rich: books appear constantly in her paintings of rooms.
As soon as John graduated from the Slade in 1898 she moved to Paris, renting rooms in Montparnasse with Nettleship and Gwen Salmond and studying at the Académie Carmen, an atelier set up by James Abbott McNeill Whistler and run by his model Carmen Rossi. John, says Foster, “would enact what she learned there for the rest of her life.” Whistler contributed to her understanding of tone, once taking a student’s palette and dragging the paint to produce an array of transitional shades, and he taught her how to hone her technique and plan her palette to orchestrate color before she began, “a masterclass that Gwen John was to absorb and even exceed.”
Whistler was also a family friend and mentor of another Slade student, Ambrose McEvoy, with whom John lived briefly on her return to London. They showed their work together at the New English Art Club in 1900. For this, perhaps John’s first exhibition, the organizers accepted sixteen women alongside seventy-five men. She was overshadowed at the start by Augustus’s bold, bravura portrait painting: in their joint exhibition at the Carfax Gallery in 1903, he showed forty-five paintings to her two. Yet by the late 1920s their positions would be reversed. In the opinion of Alfred H. Barr, the first director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, her pictures in the Tate, “by their subtlety and color, make the work of her flashy brother seem awkward and uncertain. They possess, too, a penetrating, disquieting psychological flavour.”
Barr’s observation about John’s disquieting acuity was apt. Her submission to the New English Art Club in 1900, Portrait of the Artist, is thought to have been the superb Self Portrait (circa 1899) now in the National Portrait Gallery. In it she stands confident and proud in her full-sleeved dress with a bow at her neck, gazing firmly at the viewer. The hauteur that Augustus noted is evident in her stance, and even more so in Self-Portrait in a Red Blouse (1902). Painting herself in Victorian dress with hair smoothed back, John offers a revision, Foster suggests, of Pre-Raphaelite paintings of women, no longer submissive or turning their heads aside but engaging directly and fearlessly with what lies ahead.
Fearlessly, too, in 1903 John sailed to Bordeaux with the striking, bohemian-looking model Dorothy McNeill—“Dorelia,” Augustus’s great passion and muse. Their plan was to walk to Rome, sleeping where they could and making money from drawing people and places, but from Toulouse they returned to Paris. Soon, after a lengthy pursuit by Augustus, in which Gwen (more than half in love with Dorelia herself) wrote heartfelt appeals, Dorelia was cajoled into joining Augustus and Ida in a ménage à trois. Her memories, like Augustus’s, also undermine the accepted image of John as modest and unworldly. Somehow, she said, on their walk through France, 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.”
France was John’s spiritual and artistic home. Beginning in 1904, and for the next seven years, she lived in Montparnasse, a district packed with artists’ studios. Her circle included many Slade friends, the women often posing as models for one another. But the men whose work she admired influenced her too. In early 1904, at Augustus’s suggestion, she began modeling for Auguste Rodin. From him she learned a new way of drawing, fluid and fast and vigorous. From the paintings of Cézanne, which she passionately admired, she gained a fresh understanding of color. Through Rodin she met Rilke, whose view (shared with Rodin) that “disciplined ordering of the life to enable the work” was all-important reinforced her own commitment. But while Rodin felt women should be kept in their place, Rilke disagreed: for the sake of their art he and his wife Clara Westhoff lived apart and let their baby be brought up by her grandparents. To John, he was an invigorating and reassuring presence. In 1927, a year after his death, she wrote a note to herself: “Rilke! hold my hand! You must hold me by the hand! Teach me, inspire me, make me know what to do. Take care of me when my mind is asleep, you began to help me, you must continue.”
Her extraordinary poses for Rodin included the nude statue Whistler’s Muse (circa 1908), one leg held high, knee bent, foot resting on a tree stump, based on a statue that Rodin owned of the Venus de Milo. Venus was present in other ways too. Sculptor and model became lovers. They met in her room and in his Paris studio, but she never went to his home in Meudon, where his longtime companion, Rose Beuret, held sway. (In 1911 she moved from Paris to Meudon to be near him.) Nor did she accompany him on public occasions, as did his other lover, the American-born duchess Claire de Choiseul. John was turbulent and sometimes angry, swept by a desire that swung from ecstasy to profound misery.
At Rodin’s demand that she write him “interesting” letters, she composed a series of fantasy epistles (inspired in part by his admiration for Richardson’s Clarissa) in the person of “Marie,” a Parisian model, writing to her sister “Julie,” describing her dealings with her master—“Maître”—and her sensual life, her enjoyment of her own body, the waves of orgasm and the pleasures of masturbation. In one letter the Maître makes love to Marie in front of the sculptor Hilde Flodin (a real friend of John’s) and asks the two women to pose for him embracing; they continue after he leaves. The episode is an erotic tidbit for Rodin, fuel for his thousands of drawings of the female nude, but also an exhibition of John’s candid boldness.
It’s a tricky question whether to consider her as the “victim”—the commonly held view—in the relationship described in her Lettres à Julie or to see her willing consent to Rodin’s exploitation as an example of her strength and self-determination. The nude self-portraits that she made for Rodin were never exhibited. But a work like Self-Portrait, Sketching (circa 1909), in which she is no longer “Marie” the model but Gwen John the artist, standing naked, holding her sketch pad, shows the extent of her bravery. It “makes her existence groundbreaking,” writes Foster, “the astonishing result of women having been finally allowed into the life room…. It is important to remember the profoundly transgressive nature of a woman drawing or painting herself nude for the eyes of another over a century ago.” Such paintings still carry a powerful sexual charge, like the secrets of a woman’s life displayed in the novels of her contemporary Colette. In John’s extraordinary double portrait of Fenella Lovell, clothed and nude, with their subtle references to Goya and Manet (Girl with Bare Shoulders and Nude Girl, 1909–1910), the naked woman seems far more self-possessed, although her surroundings are made deliberately uncomfortable, a padded chair replaced by a hard wooden one.
Bold or not, John was nearly destroyed when Rodin broke off the affair. “It is despised love that hurts so much,” she wrote. Yet she seems to have cherished the very intensity of her suffering. (A similar tone appears later in her desperate letters of the 1920s to Maritain’s sister-in-law, Véra Oumançoff, who eventually cut her off in 1932, finding her affection “intolerably overwhelming.”) When the affair with Rodin reached a crisis in 1911, she replaced the humiliation of rejection with the exhilaration and abasement of religion, and in 1913 she converted fully to Catholicism. She had already begun painting religious works, like her version of the Annunciation in A Lady Reading (1910–1911), a study of a woman in a room for which she “borrowed” the face from a Dürer Madonna. She later regretted this as “a very silly thing to do” and reworked the theme as the haunting Girl Reading at the Window (1911), her contemporary face illuminated by the light from without. She then turned to portraits of current Catholic leaders, from drawings of Pope Benedict XV to studies of the young Saint Thérèse de Lisieux, canonized in 1925 and a symbol of John’s ambition in both faith and art. “I must be a saint too. I must be a saint in my work,” she wrote. As Foster notes, “Gwen John wanted to be counted among the holiest, never merely a handmaiden.”
Here too, as in her affair with Rodin, suffering was a measure of her immersion. Her small portrait of Mère Poussepin, founder of a Dominican order of nuns, with its harmonious, restricted palette, its new technique of “dry painting,” and its deliberately unfinished air, so that the canvas shows through the paint like the spirit through the person, caused her immense pain. As she explained to the American poet Jeanne Robert Foster, she spent “seven years of agony” producing and rejecting seven paintings, starving herself to afford models, before “the miracle happened, the technique born of seven years travail and great love had been perfected.” Foster, another object of her obsessive devotion, was reporting to the collector John Quinn, who sold John’s work and for whom she scouted exhibitions and new works in Paris. Through Quinn her work appeared in the French section in the Armory Show in New York in 1913, alongside Monet, Renoir, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cézanne, Rodin, Picasso, Matisse, and Duchamp. More exhibitions followed, establishing her reputation on both sides of the Atlantic.
During World War I John remained in Meudon, making quick, vivid sketches of soldiers in the streets and painting a powerful set of oils of a woman in a wicker chair reading a book or a letter. These were grouped together as The Convalescent, a quietly optimistic series that implied hope of recovery from pain for both the person and the nation. After the war, her standing in France established, she sprang into the limelight again, exhibiting her portrait of Mère Poussepin in the Salon d’Automne, with sympathetic yet unsentimental drawings of children, and showing her work in other salons, including the prestigious new Salon des Tuileries. The years from 1919 to 1925 were busy and glamorous, “the happiest experience of Gwen John’s professional life,” Foster writes. But although she had a successful solo show at the New Chenil Galleries in London in 1926, from then on she stopped exhibiting at the Salons altogether.
Her life in Meudon was quiet, its mood suggested by the tender drawings she made in church of the Meudon congregation, much to the disapproval of the curé. She painted her lyrical interiors and scenes of the town and its surroundings, including atmospheric nighttime studies from the attic window, and wandered the woods and meadows, often at night, breaking another taboo for women. In 1929 she bought a former garage in a lush, wild garden at 8 rue Babie, two blocks from her attic rooms. For some years she used it as a studio before moving there completely. She left the property to her nephew Edwin John, whose daughter Sara remembered it as “a sweet place,” with a path bordered by lavender “humming with bees,” a summerhouse, and a pink-painted shed. Her bedroom looked onto the garden, and next to it was her studio. It was a good last room of her own.
Foster’s study, splendidly illustrated throughout, is a genuinely critical biography: a careful gathering at every stage of John’s career of the impact on her life and work of different milieux and individuals, of her response to ideas and techniques, currents and influences, letting us see a great artist working out her own way to live, draw, and paint. In her fifties, inspired by Maritain’s essays, John was discovering the work of Marc Chagall and particularly Georges Rouault, whom she called “the greatest painter of our day,” which spurred a move toward bold, dark outlines and flat blocks of color. She was still learning, still experimenting. In her drawings from the late 1920s to 1933, on paper she took from the reading room in the Grands Magasins du Louvre, she created repetitive series—of Saint Thérèse and her sister, of a vase of flowers, a girl by a window—always the same yet different. There were plans for exhibitions, but from the mid-1930s John was increasingly ill. In 1939 she went to Dieppe, the seaside town that had helped to heal her after Rodin’s rejection, where she died on September 18.
Since her death Gwen John’s subtle, harmonious, yet unsettling art has been increasingly valued. Foster’s sympathetic portrayal of the tension between her longing for solitude and her involvement with the movements of her time allows us to see her afresh, bringing out her hidden, powerful strength.