Artists & Designers

Gwen John (British, 1876–1939)

Born in Wales in 1876, Gwen John had an unfortunate childhood marked by the death of her mother and subsequent restricted home life. In 1895, at the age of 19, she began her artistic education at the Slade School of Fine Art in London alongside her younger brother Augustus, who also became a painter. After leaving the Slade School in 1898, John spent a formative winter in Paris studying painting under James Abbott McNeill Whistler at his newly founded private art school, the Académie Carmen. Back in London between 1899 and 1903, John focused primarily on the production of portraits of women as well as portraits of herself. She first exhibited at the New English Art Club in 1900, where she earned praise for a self-portrait titled simply, Portrait of the Artist. Though she would stop exhibiting there in 1911, she gained an important patron in John Quinn, an American collector who purchased the majority of her works.

In 1904, John settled in Paris and became an artist’s model in order to support herself. She posed primarily for American and British women artists, as well as for the French sculptor Auguste Rodin, with whom she was romantically involved. John preferred to avoid public attention, but her brother and others strongly encouraged her to exhibit. She eventually gained success for her distinctive style at the Paris Salon and the Salon d’Automne. In 1913, the same year she exhibited a painting at the Armory Show in New York, John converted to Roman Catholicism. She started a series of portraits of Mother Marie Poussepin, the founder of the Dominican Sisters of Charity at Meudon. Her artistic production through the 1920s is characterized by a subtle palette, dry application of paint, and a focus on intimate depictions of young women, still lifes, and interior scenes that inspire strong emotional responses. Having never married, John was able to devote herself entirely to her art production, only slowing down near the end of her life. In frail health, she died in the process of moving to the Channel coast at the onset of World War II in 1939. Although her brother was considered the better artist in their lifetimes, John’s reputation steadily grew following her death and today she is regarded as one of the best British artists of the Post-Impressionist era.

Excerpt from

Kelsey Martin and Nicole Myers, DMA exhibition text Women Artists in Europe from the Monarchy to Modernism, 2018.

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