Who Are They?

Who is Gwen John?

If you have never heard of Gwen John, keep reading. You’re about to meet one of the most fascinating female painters in history

Gwen John, ‘Self-Portrait’ 1902
Gwen John
Self-Portrait 1902
Tate

Who was she?

Gwen John was a Welsh painter, but she spent many years of her life in France. She had a sister and two brothers. When she was eight, her mother died. The family moved to Tenby a seaside town in Wales. She began painting the amazing objects she found on the beach, like shells and fish.

Her interest in art continued and she began studying at the Slade School of Art in London. At the time, this was the only art school that allowed female students. In 1903, when she was much older, she moved to Paris.

Most of Gwen John’s paintings are portraits of women. We don’t know who many of these women are, but they clearly fascinated her. She painted them sitting, mostly with their hands in their laps. Self-portrait is a picture Gwen John painted of herself.

Why have I never heard of her?

Gwen John, ‘Chloë Boughton-Leigh’ 1904–8
Gwen John
Chloë Boughton-Leigh 1904–8
Tate

Gwen John was often forgotten because the men in her life became more famous. She was the lover of Auguste Rodin, a famous French sculptor. Her brother was Augustus John, another famous painter. Augustus was celebrated a lot more than his sister, but recently people have started to think that Gwen was the better painter. Even Augustus thought that his sister was the better painter out of the two of them.

Today, we are starting to learn more about Gwen John and her paintings. She was clearly talented! Expect to be hearing much more about her in the future.

Why did she like painting women?

Gwen John, ‘A Lady Reading’ 1909–11
Gwen John
A Lady Reading 1909–11
Tate

This is a good question. Gwen John was attracted to both men and women. We know that she had relationships with two women during her life. We don't know if she was romantically involved with the women who modelled for her, but she was interested in painting them.

Her paintings show much more than just women sitting down. Lots are of women reading. This tells us that she was interested in women being educated and independent.

Many of Gwen John’s paintings are also of herself. A Lady Reading was originally of another woman, but she painted her own features onto the face instead. One of her models once said:

"She takes down my hair and does it like her own ... she has me sit as she does, and I feel the absorption of her personality as I sit."

By painting these women, Gwen John was also painting herself in these women. This is very interesting, because it suggests that she used her art to find her own sense of identity.

Apart from women, she liked to paint cats. Could you paint your cat or pet, like Gwen John?

Gwen John, ‘Cat’ c.1904–8
Gwen John
Cat c.1904–8
Tate

What was her style?

Gwen John, ‘Dorelia in a Black Dress’ c.1903–4
Gwen John
Dorelia in a Black Dress c.1903–4
Tate

Gwen’s brother liked to use vivid and bright colours. She, however, liked to use subtle colours. Her paints are quite muted. She would use thick paint and apply it in really small touches, almost as if she were making a mosaic. If you look really closely at Dorelia in a Black Dress, you can see how the wall is not all the same colour. Gwen John has applied more paint in some areas than others to make the wall have more texture. You can also see this in the women’s dress, which is not all one shade of black.

This is a painting of Gwen’s friend, Dorelia McNeill, who she went to art school with. This painting was made when they had little money and were sleeping on the streets in Paris. Gwen has painted her with her arms-crossed, showing that she is confident and assertive. Do you know a woman who inspires you that you could paint?


More to explore