79. Gwen John
Creatives (68 votes)
1876 – 1939
“God’s little painter” and Rodin’s muse.
Overshadowed for decades by the fame of her brother and fellow painter Augustus, Gwen John lived a life that was no less remarkable or, to her admirers, any less accomplished. Examples of her work hang in the Tate Gallery in London and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Her colourful personal life has been the subject of several recent biographies
While Augustus was a bullish and pugnacious personality, Gwen was often painfully introverted and had an almost irrational fear of strangers. This contemplative approach to life is reflected in her work. Her personal attachments were passionately intense while also being, for the time at least, highly unconventional.
Born at Haverfordwest in Pembrokeshire, Gwen followed Augustus to the Slade School of Art in London. After graduation she worked briefly with the highly fashionable James Whistler in Paris and studied at his Académie Carmen.
When, in true bohemian style, Augustus began an extra-marital affair with
Dorelia MacNeill, Gwen removed MacNeill from her brother’s clutches by taking her off to the continent. They apparently intended to walk to Rome, but got no further than France. It was where Gwen would spend most of the rest of her life.
In Paris once again, she met and fell in love with the great French sculptor Auguste Rodin. Despite the 33-year age difference between them, Gwen was obsessively attached to Rodin and became the model for his sculpture The Muse. She was also close to the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, then Rodin’s secretary. A devout convert to Catholicism, she described herself as ‘God’s Little Painter’.
Gwen John ended her days at Dieppe in Brittany – a region she had visited many times and which reminded her of the rugged coasts of her native Pembrokeshire. It seems she went there deliberately to die, taking only a copy of her will and instructions for her burial.
She left behind more than two hundred paintings and around a thousand sketches. Enigmatic in life, her artistic reputation has grown significantly in death.