In Gwen John’s hazily beautiful La Chambre sur la Cour (1907-8) we see a solitary, contemplative woman seated in a small room, a cat curled on a wicker chair opposite her. Interior scenes were all the vogue at the time, with French artists like Édouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard among the leading practitioners. But John did something wholly unique with the genre, making it about a woman’s experience and needs rather than a depiction of the domesticity in which contemporary society would like to see her confined.
John was a woman who consistently refused to conform to the norms expected of her. Brave and bohemian, she moved between London and Paris where she immersed herself in the art and thinking of her time. Yet because of her sex and later conversion to Catholicism, her subject matter has been used to define her as a timid, insular woman, too pious or afraid to engage with the world around her.
“It’s quite a seductive image, the archetypal artist in a garret,” says art historian Alicia Foster, author of a new biography of John and curator of an accompanying exhibition at the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, England, which both aim to challenge the myths that have built up around her. However, as Foster laughingly points out, “if you want to be a recluse, there are better places to go than London in the 1890s or Paris in 1904.”
Spending most of her early life in Pembrokeshire, Wales, John followed her celebrated brother Augustus to London to study at the Slade School of Art in 1895. A lack of funds meant that she had to eke out her existence in a series of cheaply rented rooms, but she relished her newfound independence, embracing life as one of the “New Women” who were then challenging societal norms. She excelled at the Slade, winning two prizes, and in 1898 she made her first sojourn to Paris. While there, she studied under American painter James Abbott Whistler, and reveled in the heady sense of freedom the city gave her.
In the years immediately afterwards, John painted her first great works, both self-portraits (neither unfortunately could be lent for the Pallant House show). In the first, painted around 1899, John stands with her hand on her hip, haughtily meeting the viewer’s gaze, an uncompromising take on the Grand Manner style. The second, painted around 1902, sees her portraying herself with the intensity of an Ibsen heroine. “The fact that she was so assured and playing with these ideas of who she was so early on is fascinating,” Foster says. “I think they’re statements of presence, and intent.”
That intent was always to be a great artist, and to that end John knew she had to move to Paris, settling there in 1904. It was here that she began to focus on the interiors with which she would become so closely associated. While her male peers painted rooms as part of the domestic sphere, for John they were always “a woman’s space for work and thought,” Foster says.
Money was as always short, and to make ends meet John worked as an artist’s model, a career choice which would have been unthinkable in London, and one which—even in Paris—took significant courage. Yet John ended up working for the most famous sculptor of the era, Rodin, becoming not only a favored model, but also his lover.
The massive power differential has often seen John cast as a victim when the affair ended, but Foster doesn’t think she ever yearned for a conventional domestic set up. “A relationship with someone magnificent at one remove was what she wanted,” she says. “And it’s no coincidence I think that when the relationship with Rodin ended, there was God.”
John converted to Catholicism in 1913, but rather than signaling an end to her career, it was the spur for another creative leap. In France, there was a move to establish a Modern art movement that was also religious, one in which the techniques and methods were as important as the subject matter. Taking her cue from Cézanne, “she extends her painterly practice in a quite risky manner. She pares down her palette and paints in blocks, leaving brushes of paint that are visible,” Foster explains. The results can be seen in the cool serenity of a work such as The Nun (c. 1915–21).
The patronage of the wealthy American John Quinn had already resulted in John’s work being shown in the 1913 Armory Show in New York, and following World War I, her simple yet radiant style was perfectly in tune with the times. Works such as the “Convalescent” series, which Foster believes alludes to the post-war recovery of France, led to significant success in the Paris salons.
Yet in 1925 she abruptly stopped exhibiting. For someone so sure of their talent it seems an inexplicable decision, but it was perhaps a fit of pique at having been nominated as a Salon Associate only to be disqualified later when it was discovered that she wasn’t French.
Despite that disappointment, the following year John had a solo show at the New Chenil Galleries in London. It was a great success, yet it was here that the myths around her began. The art historian and curator Mary Chamot described her as an “elusive personality” who has to be “besought for years before she will consent to show anything.” It was a somewhat mystifying comment given her success in America and France, yet the idea persisted. When her work appeared in a 1952 Tate exhibition, a catalog entry described her as “by nature a recluse, devoid of ambition.”
Whether playing into misogynistic myths, or a canny attempt to manipulate the art market, the idea of John as reclusive and unambitious simply doesn’t hold water. “For a woman to have built such a sustained career at that time is very rare, it’s an enormous achievement,” Foster says. John herself was always aware of the value of her work. In 1910, she wrote to her friend Ursula Tyrwhitt: “I cannot imagine why my work will have some value in the world – and yet I know it will.”
Visitors to the Pallant House show are likely to concur. “The work has a radiance to it that is quite shocking when you see it face to face, it can’t be reproduced,” Foster says. And how should we now think of John herself? “Intensely brave, self-assured to the point of ruthless, driven, and profoundly gifted,” she concludes.
“Gwen John: Art and Life in London and Paris,” Pallant House Gallery, 8-9 North Pallant, Chichester, U.K., through October 8, 2023.
Gwen John: Art and Life in London and Paris by Alicia Foster is published by Thames & Hudson. It will be released in the U.S. on July 25.