Gwen John: A Life 
by Sue Roe.
Chatto, 364 pp., £25, June 2001, 0 7011 6695 9
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The self-portrait by Gwen John hanging in the National Portrait Gallery was painted in 1899 or 1900. She is dressed in the formal costume of the period: a tight-waisted blouse with leg-of-mutton sleeves and a big black bow at the neck. Her hair is tied back and her hands are on her hips. She is slightly turned away from us, so only one hand is visible. Gwen John always emphasised the hands of her sitters. Hers is strong and competent, its paleness echoing the paleness of her face; she looks at us, calm, aloof, self-assured, with watchful, appraising eyes.

John’s portraits are almost entirely of women and young girls. She would paint the same subject over and over, so that her portraits become, as the painter and critic Mary Taubman put it, like a ‘distillation of self’, so powerfully do they evoke her own presence. When she followed her brother Augustus to the Slade in 1895, she joined a group of talented young women, which included Ida Nettleship, Ursula Tyrwhitt, Edna Waugh and Gwen Salmond. Henry Tonks, the anatomist and ex-doctor, and Wilson Steer were their teachers, and Whistler was their hero. In 1898 she went to Paris with Ida Nettleship and Gwen Salmond and the three of them enrolled as students at Whistler’s newly opened school, the Académie Carmen. On one of his visits to Paris, Augustus John spotted the dapper figure of Whistler in the Louvre, and introduced himself as Gwen’s brother, commenting on the feeling for character shown in his sister’s drawings. ‘Character?’ responded Whistler. ‘What’s that? It’s tone that matters. Your sister has a fine sense of tone.’

After the Paris trip Gwen John lived briefly in London. Then, after a walking trip to Toulouse with Dorelia McNeill, stolen temporarily from Augustus, she settled in Paris in the early 1900s and remained there for the rest of her life. Her early portraits in oils, such as those of the desirable Dorelia painted in Toulouse and the self-portrait described above, are made up of layer upon layer of thin semi-transparent glazes – a technique she learned from the Old Masters. After she met Rodin she pursued her interest in the formal aspects of painting and drawing, and in the 1910s her technique changed dramatically as she began to use a chalky impasto applied in a series of small brushstrokes. John Quinn, the American collector, who supported her with regular payments while he waited, sometimes for years, for the paintings she was working on, would later shuck off his English protégés, including Augustus, as he came to think their work inferior to the French artists he was collecting: Cézanne, Picasso, Rouault, Derain. He never dropped Gwen. She was, for him, a French painter.

Paris in the late 1890s and early 1900s was full of European artists, and by no means all of them were men. There were a number of English women besides John, pursuing their art, or the sexual and social freedoms that weren’t available to women in Edwardian England, or both. The painter Paula Modersohn-Becker came from Germany, with her friend the sculptor Clara Westhoff, who studied with Rodin before Gwen met him, and married his secretary, Rainer Maria Rilke. Modersohn-Becker died in 1907, aged 31, of complications after childbirth. Like John, she painted many portraits of women and many self-portraits; her subjects share with John’s a melancholy self-absorption, and her style became increasingly monumental, a word often used to describe Gwen John’s later work. You can see the influence of Van Gogh and Gauguin in the flat, stylised faces of Modersohn-Becker’s portraits. The containment or aloofness that is present in most of both women’s self-portraits was not a coincidence. ‘In art,’ Modersohn-Becker wrote, ‘one is usually totally alone with oneself.’ But, unlike Gwen John, Modersohn-Becker sacrificed that necessary solitude to marriage and motherhood.

Gwen’s friend Ida Nettleship sacrificed her art the day she agreed to marry Augustus John. The babies started coming at once and didn’t stop. In 1902, after the birth of her first child, she wrote: ‘Baby takes so much time – and the rooms we are in are not very clean, so I am always dusting and brushing. Also we have a puppy, who adds to the difficulties.’ Poor Ida. There were babies all over the place, not just hers but soon Dorelia’s as well. ‘I feel so stifled and oppressed. It isn’t that Augustus is difficult or unkind. It’s the mental state.’ She wrote wistfully of a planned escape to Paris: ‘I can imagine going to the Louvre and then back to a small room over a restaurant or something. Think of all the salads and the sun, and blue dresses and waiters. And the smell of butter and cheese in the small streets. I think to live with a girlfriend and have lovers would be almost perfect.’ She and Dorelia did briefly get away from Augustus, but they had all the children with them – four or five by then – and so there wasn’t a great deal of opportunity for the Louvre or for lovers. Ida, too, died in 1907, of puerperal fever after the birth of her fifth child.

Male artists can flourish in a domestic environment. It surely wasn’t Augustus’s many wives, mistresses, children, dogs and ponies that were the enemy, finally, of his art; nor was it the other side of that full-bearded masculinity – the booze, the hanging around with Gypsies, and the prostitutes of Montmartre – so much as his love for the rich and the titled. You can see it in the pages of Chiaroscuro, his ‘Fragments of Autobiography’. The wit and oblique charm of the early reminiscences give way to lists of rich Americans he has dined with; his own rich American, John Quinn, recognised the consequences for Augustus’s art and stopped buying it. But for women artists sexual relationships with men, in or out of marriage, were dangerous. Of those who started out at the same time as Gwen John, only Ursula Tyrwhitt was still alive and painting in her forties. She had married late, and remained childless. John, too, survived. She represented herself as a waif, but she was strong and canny.

In her biography of 1981 (the only other full-length biography), Susan Chitty emphasises John’s friendships with women. Sue Roe makes less of the strong feelings John had for, and herself inspired in other women. There was an innkeeper’s wife, according to Chitty, who pursued her to Paris on her way back from Toulouse. (She was pursued by men, too. She was always complaining of being followed in the street, fondled on buses and so on.) The close attention John pays to the subjects of her portraits, her women and girls, manifests itself as a kind of love: you can see it in the early portraits of her sister Winifred, in Dorelia serene by lamplight, in the lovely paintings of Chloë Boughton-Leigh, and in the series of paintings of Mère Poussepin, the founder of the Dominican Order of the Sisters of Charity, whom Gwen John painted from an image on a small prayer card and transformed into a series of astonishing portraits. When she didn’t like her subject – almost the only example being Fenella Lovell, whom she painted in two portraits, Girl with Bare Shoulders and Nude Girl – her hostility is apparent.

Women in Paris at the turn of the century were reinventing themselves as artists rather than as muses. Late Victorian English painting had shown women in domestic interiors, as part of the furnishings: John painted them in rooms uncluttered by domestic objects. Sometimes they are reading, as in her two paintings of the early 1910s, A Lady Reading and Girl Reading at the Window (Quinn’s first acquisition). The lady has a face like ‘a vierge of Dürer’, John said; the girl has John’s own face. Sometimes her women hold a piece of sewing, or a cat. The series of portraits of Mère Poussepin show her with her hands in her lap or resting on a prayer book or psalter on the table. There is little to distract the viewer’s eye from the self-contained, composed subject. Her interiors are similarly bare: sunlight falls into an attic room, a curtain blows by an open window; there is a table, or a wicker chair; a pot of tea on the table, or a glass jar on the mantelpiece stuck with paintbrushes. These are her own rooms. It is as if she stripped down her own world to its bare essentials, and then painted it.

From 1904 until Rodin’s death in 1917, John was living such an intense emotional life that she almost lost her sense of herself. It was in her capacity as a model rather than as a fellow artist that she met Rodin, and although she would show him her drawings and sketches and ask for his advice, she always downplayed the fact that she was an artist. As if this were not enough, when she started modelling for him it was as the Muse, a piece of work (never completed) commissioned as a memorial to Whistler. She had been working as an artist’s model ever since settling in Paris – it helped her to pay her rent, buy food and hire models herself. She posed mainly for the English women painters; although they often treated her rudely, failing to offer her the cakes and tea which they wolfed themselves, they didn’t – on the whole – make sexual advances as the men did. There wasn’t a very clear distinction between models and prostitutes. John was very sensitive to this. She allowed it to be thought that the big bust-up with her father, after which she refused to accept any financial support, had happened after he visited her in Paris and, seeing her in a low-cut dress modelled on the dress worn by Manet’s barmaid at the Folies-Bergères, accused her of looking like a prostitute. (She was in fact happy to have an excuse to distance herself from her father, who had always been awkward and difficult and was prone to making unsuitable proposals of marriage to young women.)

To model for Rodin was to enter a world of sexuality and sensuality that was of quite a different order from what went on in other artists’ studios. Rodin had sex with all his models, sometimes behind screens, sometimes more discreetly, but less comfortably, in a cupboard. Sometimes discretion was not involved at all. To Rodin, Gwen John was Marie, or petite Marie. To her, Rodin was, of course, ‘mon maître’. She had fled from one powerful, overbearing bearded Augustus into the arms of another one. Auguste Rodin was 63 when she met him. She was 27. Their passion for each other lasted about two years, after which hers continued, but his did not. She was displaced by an American woman, a fake duchess, who was brash and wore a wig – apparently it slipped off during a sexual encounter with le maître in the studio – and organised his life to exclude importunate women such as Gwen. At his home in Meudon, outside Paris, Rodin continued to live with Rose Beuret, the peasant woman with whom he had spent the previous forty years.

John wrote letters to Rodin which she would deliver to the studio, pressing them into Rilke’s hand if she wasn’t allowed to go in; or she would lurk outside in a café, springing out to catch him when he left to get the train back to Meudon. She wrote two thousand of these letters in the years 1906 and 1907. They are addressed to an imaginary person called Julie, recounting the events of John’s days, reliving the moments of sexual passion shared with Rodin when he came to visit her in her rooms in Montparnasse, first in the rue St Placide and then in the rue du Cherche-Midi. At first he called on her once a week. But he began to complain of headaches, which sometimes lasted for a day or two. He wrote sweet notes, urging her to eat properly – she existed in a state of semi-starvation – to take exercise, and to look after herself. But alas the headaches got worse; they lasted for weeks, and then for months. He really couldn’t visit her that much any more.

So she went out to Meudon, sometimes taking one of her cats with her, and stationed herself in the bushes outside his house for days at a stretch, hoping to catch a glimpse of him as he tottered round the garden. The bushes outside the Rodin residence were not exactly empty; there were, as usual, the main-chance men John always seemed to attract – the ones who would follow her down the street and rub themselves against her as she turned a corner; there was also, for a time, another former lover hiding in the bushes: the once beautiful sculptor Camille Claudel, now an ‘emaciated hag’, as Susan Chitty puts it, ‘who only crept out of her shuttered room at dusk to haunt her master’s boundaries’. John had an implacable will. In 1911 she found rooms in Meudon and remained there for the rest of her life.

Roe relates these extraordinary events as if they were not out of the ordinary. She quotes extensively from the ‘Julie’ letters, and paraphrases them extensively, which gives a breathless quality to the narration of events but fails to shape them in the reader’s mind. The lack of authorial commentary makes the story even more disquieting: is it, or isn’t it, a bit odd to take your clothes off in the bushes outside your beloved’s house?

Roe seems reluctant to distance herself from her subject, still less to judge her. Even when she speaks of Gwen’s ‘emotional, sexual and psychic demons’ she is inclined to make light of them. Chitty is more willing to allow the eccentricity of the vigils in the bushes. And she is not afraid to use words like ‘strange’, ‘odd’ or ‘mysterious’. Indeed she draws attention to particular strangenesses – the way, for example, that John’s handwriting changed during the course of the ‘Julie’ letters, becoming increasingly babyish as Rodin withdrew from her.

During the years of her passion for Rodin, John managed to drag herself away from the bushes; to force enough food down her throat to keep herself alive, and slowly, very slowly, to paint pictures of astonishing calm and interiority. There are different levels of strangeness in all this: not just the strangeness of the power of her will, or the strangeness of her life, but the fact that she herself knew how strange her behaviour was. In Chiaroscuro, Augustus John quotes some passages from her correspondence which, he says, afford ‘first-hand clues’ to her life and character. In a letter to Véra Oumançoff, the young woman who became the object of her devotion in the 1920s, she describes the difference between her own life and the lives of others. For them, she says, there is always tomorrow and the day after. For her, however, every day is ‘the last day’: ‘Je ne vois pas d’autres; je ne regarde pas en avant . . . Je suis bizarre.’

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