I love the Welsh artist Gwen John (1876-1939) both for her beautiful, tranquil, masterful paintings, and for her passionate, ferociously independent spirit. Her younger brother, Augustus John, grew up to be the most celebrated English artist of his day, and yet he famously stated: "Fifty years after my death I shall be remembered as Gwen John’s brother." Remarkably, time has proved him right.
Gwen studied at the Slade School of Art in London in the waning years of the 19th century, then carved out a bohemian life at the fringes of the art world in Paris (from roughly 1898 to 1910), where she studied with Whistler, modelled for Rodin (who was also her lover), and was a close friend of Rilke's. Living in a series of spare little rooms, she supported herself by modelling while quietly creating luminous paintings of great technical brilliance, exploring the tonal qualities of color in an almost scientific fashion. Obsessed with Rodin, and focused on her work, she exasperated her family and friends by her eccentric manner of living -- spending money on paints and treats for her cat while living on nuts and fruits herself. On hot summer nights, Gwen liked to sneak into the Luxembourg Gardens and sleep among the trees with her beloved cat, Tiger. (Almost one hundred years later, I love walking through the same gardens and imagining the young artist there.)
In 1910, Gwen moved to a tumbledown house on the outskirts of Paris, converted to Catholicism, and lived an increasingly reclusive life with her paints and cats, often disappearing into "retraits" in which she would see no one at all, devoting herself to her art. Her usual painting subjects were women, children, cats and corners of the various rooms she lived in -- but always Gwen's true subject was color and light, and the interplay between them.
Last year, Anne Enright published a lovely little piece about Gwen John in The Guardian, writing:
"She painted. She had a little success. She died. I should hate her story but it seems to me exemplary. She made exactly enough space in her life to set her easel down. The push for honesty in her work is amazing; the way she painted the light hitting the side of a brown teapot, or the slope of a mansard roof. I look at her sad, frank-eyed portraits of herself and of other women, and think if that is what the truth looks like, then she was painting a losing game.
"But she did not compromise. She worked with her elbows stuck out, jabbing them both in the eye: on one side her brother Augustus, with his lifestyle and his fame and his sentimental line, and on the other, Auguste [Rodin], the genius, his lecherous old hands coaxing flesh from stone.
"She stood in the middle, looking straight at her subject: Gwen."
I recommend reading Enright's short article ("My hero: Gwen John"), and having a look at Gwen's paintings in the Tate Britain collection. There are two excellent biographies of the artist: Gwen John, A Life by Sue Roe, and Gwen John by Susan Chitty. I also recommend Gwen John and Augustus John from the Tate's exhibition of the two artists' work in 2004/2005. And, for something a little different, The Blue Flower: Poems from the Life and Art of Gwen John by English poet Elizabeth Burns.
The painting at the top of this post is "A Corner of the Artist's Room," referring to an attic room at 87 rue du Cherche-Midi in Paris, where the painter lived between 1907 and 1909. The second painting is "The Convalescent."