Gwen John: Dissecting Her Life & Emotional Artworks

Gwen John was one of the masters from the 20th century known for her handling of Post-Impressionist strokes, as well as excelling in Fauvism while remaining detached from the world and prioritizing her art of painting.

Gwen John

‘People are like shadows to me, and I am like a shadow,’ wrote Gwen John in one of her letters to a friend. Gwen endured grievous and lifelong poverty, which often compelled her to serve as an artist’s model. Due to this, she was unabled to devote much of her time to painting and drawing. But despite all these odds and problems, the time Gwen gathered for herself helped her create marvelous artworks. However, exhibiting her work was unnerving to her because she hated publicity. Other than her friends, she avoided meeting the few collectors of her work, including John Quinn, the wealthiest and perhaps the most enthusiastic. Concerning her art, her only ambition was to paint more and more canvases. Susan Chitty took a quote from her innumerable studio notes,

“Don’t be vague or wavering. Impose your style. Don’t be afraid of falling into mediocrity. You would never.”

The other quotes simply tell us that she didn’t want recognition to continue painting, but rather her inner desire was enough. A few more quotes say,

“You are only free when left all,”

“Leave everybody and let them leave you. Then only will you be without fear.”

Today, we are here to learn about the life and art of Gwen John, one of the most inspiring artists from Britain.

Artist Abstract: Gwen John.

Born as Gwendolen Mary John in Haverfordwest, Wales, on 22 June 1876, she was the older sister of the painter Augustus John. Gwen grew up in Tenby, Wales, from 1884 and studied at the Slade School of Fine Art, London, under Frederick Brown and Henry Tonks and then in Academie Carmen, Paris, under James McNeill Whistler from 1889-99. She then lived in London from 1899 to 1903. After that, Gwen moved back to Paris and lived till 1911, working as an artist’s model. Furthermore, she spent the rest of her remaining life in Meudon, near Paris, till 1939.

Gwen John Self Portrait 1902
Gwen John Self Portrait, 1902 | Source: Tate
ArtistGwendolen Mary John
Birth22 June, 1876
Death18 September, 1939
GenrePortraiture and Domestic Still Life
Famous PaintingsSelf Portrait 1902 and A Lady Reading

Early Life and Training of the Artist.

A solicitor from Brighton, born on 22 June 1876 at Haverford West, Pembrokeshire, Gwen was the second child of Edwin William John and Augusta Smith of a Brighton family. A short time after she was born in 1884 when her mother died, the family moved to 5 Lexden Terrace, Tenby. The first studio for Gwen and Augustus, whose vocation emerged early in each of their lives, was here in an attic. A remarkable capacity for devotion was also evident in Gwen, who, her brother relates, ‘picks up beautiful children to draw and adore.’ Following Augustus to Slade in 1895, she shared a series of rooms with him, which they constantly changed, surviving solely on fruits and nuts. Gwen’s intense friendships sometimes made the atmosphere of the group of which they were the focus almost unbearable, according to her brother, ‘with its frightful tension, its terrifying excursions and alarms.’ A suicide attempt resulted from a break in one of these friendships. However, the excursions and alarms did not impede her progress. As can be seen from the Self Portrait at the Age of About Twenty, she drew beautifully while still a student.

During 1895-8, she was a pupil at the Slade School of Fine Art, London, under Professor Fred Brown and Philip Wilson Steer. Though Augustus entered the school a year earlier, he stayed until 1898. When Gwen left the Slade School, she was awarded a prize for figure composition. And then, in September, she went to study at J. Mcneill Whistler’s new school, the Academie Carmen in Paris, with Ida Nettleship and Gwen Salmond, later joined by Michel Salaman. One of the letters of Ida Nettleship to Michel Salaman, says,

“We have a very excellent flat. Gen John is sitting before a mirror carefully posing herself- She has been at it for half an hour- it is for an interior.”

Parisians at this time often represented women as one of the sights in the city, a favorite subject for artists seduced by and displaying new styles. However, women were also becoming more prevalent as artists in Paris, enabling them to be involved in the spectacle. In her correspondence of the 1900s, Gwen John discusses current trends and shopping at the Bon Marche, illustrating how women artists not only follow fashion through buying ready-to-wear clothes but also design and manufacture their own clothes in order to dress up for Parisian life. Interior with Figures, her painting depicting her friends Ida and Gwen Salmond, reflects the artist’s desire to recreate the image of chic Parisian femininity during her first visit. But, till the 1900s, Gwen continued to earn her living by modeling for the women artists and Rodin, in addition to painting for her own self. 

Interior with Figures by Gwen John
Interior with Figures by Gwen John | Source: USEUM

Honestly, I can not sum up the entire life of Gwen in this single article, as her life was more than an essay to be contained in a piece of written work. For her lover alone, she wrote around 2000 letters in the span of two years, which makes it impossible for anyone to summarize in one article. Hence, I am prioritizing more on her artwork. If you are a person who loves reading the entire life of the artist, which is of course beautiful, then you can refer to Gwen John by Lady Susan Chitty, which is the best resource to know her deeply.

To understand John’s art, one must know that she was Anglo-French. Gwen consciously distanced herself from her entire family and background when she moved to France, and she rarely visited Britain, declaring it ‘quite a foreign country.’ Nevertheless, her art always spoke traits of Britain. The tonalism and intimist subject matter of her artworks comes from the Slade School training and new English Art Club associations. However, her mature work consisted mainly of patterned brushwork, dry surfaces, and subdued colors, which recalls the work of Camden Town contemporaries. It also shows hints of affinities with Cézanne, Modigliani, Picasso, Puvis de Chavannes, and Rouault. Yet, John had a great appreciation of avante-garde Parisian art.

When she lived in Paris after 1904, she met with the sculptor, Auguste Rodin, for whom she posed. She instantly fell in love with him, and for nearly a decade, she obsessively fixed her passion on Rodin. 

Gwen John Study For a Muse
Study For a Muse (Gwen John) by Auguste Rodin | Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

However, in the early 1910s, Gwen had significant changes in her life. Her obsession with Rodin declined, and she wanted to free herself from every burden to turn herself to her art. Then, a few months later, she met with John Quinn, a distinguished American lawyer and art collector. Their relationship endured until 1924, which was also the most productive period for the artistic life of Gwen. Quinn then became her patron and most enthusiastic supporter, buying her dozens of paintings and numerous drawings. He gave her modest financial security so that she could concentrate on her work. In 1911, John moved to the Paris suburb of Meudon where she accepted Catholicism. Soon, she began to find comfort in the religion, spending most of her time in the local Church, where she saw children and nuns (which also appeared in her numerous paintings). By the end of the decade, her mature artwork majorly consisted of female sitters, usually anonymous.

As she got more involved in religion, she wrote,

“A beautiful life is one led, perhaps, in the shadow, but ordered, regular and harmonious.”

It is important not to overlook the fact that her paintings were influenced significantly by her acceptance of Roman Catholicism. Her first paintings used glazes or thin fluid paints, and she made delicate and gradual changes to the picture until she realized her vision of the subject. Her later works, however, used a completely different approach. In the event of failure, she preferred to start over, using thick paint and rarely touching her canvas more than once in the same place. As her tones became lighter and closer, her dramatically simplified forms became even simpler as she gradually stopped using dark, almost black, shadows. In her later works, the color is even more delicate, and her intensity is heightened. But no matter how small a scale she worked- often it was tiny- this produced nevertheless an effect of grandeur. She tried implementing the lessons of poverty, spirituality, and emotional ordeals in her artwork, which makes it so fascinating to watch.

Looking at Gwen John Paintings.

Gwen did fewer than 200 paintings and several thousand drawings. If one looks at her artworks, then he can witness that the pictures are invariably muted in palette, small in size, with a restrained mood. The subject matter basically consists of an impassive woman or girl, a small group of children with nuns, or an occasional austere domestic still-life landscape. If one describes the artwork of John, there are three words- reticent, private, and quiet. She once wrote to Ursula,

“As to whether I have anything worth expressing… I may never have anything to express except this desire for a more interior life.”

Hence, the pictures she painted, speak more about communion intimacy, which differs from the paintings of other artists. More than a third of her paintings are in public collection, with 1000 drawings solely belonging to the National Museum of Wales.

1. Mrs Atkinson.

TitleMrs. Atkinson
ArtistGwen John
Datec. 1897–98
MediumOil on wood
Dimensions12 × 12 1/4 in. (30.5 × 31.1 cm)
PriceNot on sale
Where is it housed?The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The painting shows the realistic portraiture of an old lady dressed in black. Her age-old wrinkled face with sorrowful eyes is dissolved in the melancholy of losing someone. Since the portrait belonged to the early career of Gwen John, the shadows and lines are darker with the patterned background behind the subject. Also, there is more contrast and saturation in the work, which also talks about its early existence. However, Mrs. Atkinson’s portrait is one of the first mature artworks, which Gwen painted after training at Slade School under Frederick Brown and Henry Tonks.

Mrs Atkinson Gwen John Paintings
Mrs Atkinson by Gwen John | Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

2. The Nun.

TitleThe Nun
ArtistGwen John
Datec. 1915-21
MediumOil on wood
Dimensions865 × 600 × 70 mm
PriceNot on sale
Where is it housed?Tate Museum

The painting is one of the several pictures of nuns, which Gwen John painted after she found comfort in religion as she accepted Roman Catholicism. In a letter from Sister Madeleine de la Présentation, Gwen wrote that she was very much interested in the Sisters of the Presentation, after which she made sketches of them in church. One can see that the artwork of Gwen got refined as she stopped using darker lines, shadows, and highlights. Here, she painted a nun with a relevant expression in lucid and light colors.

The Nun by Gwen John
The Nun by Gwen John | Source: Tate

3. Young Woman Holding a Black Cat.

TitleYoung Woman Holding a Black Cat
ArtistGwen John
Datec. 1920
MediumOil paint on canvas
Dimensions460 x 298 x 17 mm
PriceNot on sale
Where is it housed?Tate Museum

By the end of 1920, Gwen’s style attained full maturity. Here, most of the paintings she crafted include female sitters, usually anonymous (which is most commonly known as the convalescent). For her, the model was not simply a model but an affair of volumes. She tried her best to define the emotions of the subject through her craftsmanship. If you look at the painting, you will notice that detail is suppressed in monumental, impassive figures and in the background. The surface of the artwork is chalky and opaque, with the use of pigment applied in the small rhythmic strokes to a thinly primed canvas. The palette she used is cool-grey with limited tonal values.

Young Woman Holding a Black Cat by Gwen John
Young Woman Holding a Black Cat by Gwen John | Source: Tate

4. Girl With a Blue Scarf.

TitleGirl With a Blue Scarf
ArtistGwen John
MediumOil paint on canvas
Dimensions16 1/4 x 13″ (41.1 x 33 cm)
PriceNot on sale
Where is it housed?Museum of Modern Art, New York

The Girl with a Blue Scarf is an artwork which belonged to 1923’s from the artistic career of John. The portrait depicts this woman in simple interiors, but the palette, props, and silhouettes differ in comparison to other artworks. Gwen used a paint application that is bolder and more vigorous, but at the same time, the palette is more varied with a new mauvish cast, contrasting between light and dark. The portrait has some resemblance with the Modigliani’s portrait of the late 1910s. For instance, the proportions and simple poses are similar, and the sitter has similar eccentric features, just like the Modigliani.

Girl with a Blue Scarf Gwen John paintings
Girl with a Blue Scarf by Gwen John | Source: Via Wikimedia Commons

Other paintings from Gwen John are A Girl Wearing a Hat and Coat with a Fur Collar, Seated in Church, Seated Girl Holding a Child, and Self-Portrait.

Final Words.

In the world of feminism, Gwen John is a hero. However, it should be noted that she was probably far less constrained by her gender than most women of her generation, or indeed later. The fact is that, as a young girl, she was kept at home while her younger brother attended a Teby art school, but when she entered the Slade, she lived independently. She is often viewed as a victim because of her unhappy relationship with Rodin, but she is ruthlessly self-willed. She once said,

“I think if we are to do beautiful pictures, we ought to be free from family conventions and ties. I think the has had its day. We don’t get to Heaven in families now but one by one.”

So, for me, she was a talented woman artist who beautifully portrayed emotions in her artworks.


1. Gwen John: Art and Life in London and Paris by Alicia Foster.

2. Gwen John by Lady Susan Chitty.

3. Dictionary of Women Artists (Volume 2) by Delia Gaze.

4. Modern English Painters by Sir John Rothenstein.

Frequently Asked Questions.

How old was Gwen John when she died?

Gwen John was sixty-three years old when she died on 18 September 1939. Throughout her life, she gained the wisdom of extreme poverty, emotional problems, and religious spirituality, which she embodied in her art.

How many paintings did Gwen John make?

Gwen John made less than 200 paintings and several thousand drawings. They significantly included portraits of anonymous female sitters and domestic interior scenes as still life.

Is Gwen John related to Augustus John?

Gwen John was the eldest sister of Augustus John. Augustus’ own prophecy in Holroyd Pg 61 writes, “Fifty years after my death I shall be remembered as Gwen John’s brother.”

Which is the last painting of Gwen John?

The Portrait of Miss Bridget Sarah Bishop of 1929 is Gwen’s last finished oil painting. However, she continued working with watercolors and gouache. Her last works on paper were opaque with brightly colored abstract images.


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