Gwen John at the National Art Museum, Cardiff

When I was studying at Liverpool University, there was a pub on the University Precinct, close to the Student’s Union, called the Augustus John. At the time, as a chemistry student who was proud to be a philistine, I had no idea who it was named after and didn’t really care. I think someone told me he was an artist, but it was only a number of years later, when I started to become interested in art, that I found out more about him – a well known artist at the beginning of the 20th Century, born in Tenby and who had taught for a while at the University.

But this post isn’t about Augustus John, but his, in my opinion, more talented sister, Gwen. Although I was aware of her, she first came to my notice in January this year during a visit to the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, where one of her paintings, The Convalescent was on display.

The Convalescent, by Gwen John

The Convalescent, by Gwen John © The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

Not surprisingly, as she’s an important Welsh artist, born in Haverfordwest in Pembrokeshire, the National Museum of Art in Cardiff has a good selection of her works. They’re hung in a corner of Gallery 15, close to paintings by her younger brother.

Her most well known paintings are of women, often seated and clasping their hands in front of them, and modest, domestic interiors. The selection on display in Cardiff included examples of both types. She is also noted for her pictures of cats. Her models were usually friends that she knew well, although the identities of most of her models are unknown. The subjects of her paintings reflected her rather solitary lifestyle – from 1910 onwards she lived alone except for her cats, in Meudon, a suburb of Paris where Rodin had had his main studio.

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Girl in a Blue Dress (1914-15)

This painting is very similar to The Convalescent. It looks like the same girl and she seems to be wearing the same dress. The pose is similar, although she is facing in the opposite direction and here she is clasping her hands and is looking directly ahead whereas in The Convalescent she is holding and reading a letter looking downwards.

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Girl in a Green Dress (1910’s or 20’s)

Another three quarter portrait with a girl clasping her hands on her lap. The colours in this one are much more subdued.

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Girl in Profile (late 1910’s)

The pose here is different than in most of her portraits. Again, the tone is very subdued.

The following two pictures are simple interiors, no doubt painted in her own home.

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The Japanese Doll

A Corner of the Artist's Room in Paris

A Corner of the Artist’s Room in Paris (1907-9) source: National Museum of Art website

After the death of Rodin, with whom she had an affair, she converted to Catholicism and although religious themes don’t particularly feature in her work, she did paint some pictures of nuns, including portraits of Mère Marie Poussepin the founder of the Order of the Sisters of Charity of the Holy Virgin of Tours.

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Mère Poussepin seated at a table (mid 1910’s)

In her paintings she used subdued, pastel colours and in many cases, they have a weathered, almost washed out look to them which I think is intended. Girl in a Green Dress, Girl in Profile  and Mère Poussepin seated at a table I saw in Cardiff are all painted in this style. There is some similarity to Whistler’s use of colour, which she may have picked up when she studied with him for a while in Paris. However I think her tones are stronger than his – whose pictures often almost seem to be lost in the mist or gloom. Her brushwork is very fine and deliberate, and she was a talented draftsmen (although I don’t think she was particularly good at drawing and painting hands – but many artists struggle with this).

The National Art Gallery had an interesting interactive display accessed on a touch screen computer terminal in the corner where her works were displayed that explained her techniques and also discussed differences between Gwen’s approach and that of her brother, Augustus.

Augustus John revelled in a lively, bohemian lifestyle. Gwen, particularly after Rodin’s death, had a restrained, contemplative life. In both cases the way they lived their lives is reflected in their art. I think Gwen was the greater artist and much prefer her delicate work to that of her more flamboyant, better known, younger brother.


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