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The following text was written and submitted by Jean Ershler Schatz, artist and researcher of Laguna Woods, California:
Gwen John was the elder sister to Augustus John, born in Haverfordwest in Wales in 1876. Their mother, Augusta, was an amateur painter, but she died when Gwen was eight. Their father was both silent and unsympathetic and Gwen escaped to the Slade School of Art the year following her brother. For a long time she was the quiet sister of the flamboyant brother. Although he had great respect for her gifts, she longed to escape his influence also. They competed for the attentions of at least one woman, Dorelia MacNeil, who married Augustus.
Gwen’s nature was passionate, heavily laced with painful fastidiousness. From this tortured mix, she created works whose outstanding quality is quiet harmoniousness, a sense of peace. Nearly all her paintings are depictions of women alone, of animals, flowers and of nearly empty rooms.
In 1898, Gwen left England for Paris, which was to be her home for the rest of her life. She studied with James McNeil Whistler, who claimed not to be teaching art, but the "scientific application of paints and brushes". He was an important master for Gwen. She worked slowly and obsessively, repeating motifs again and again and yet she was convinced of the importance of spontaneity. In 1904 she became the model of the French sculptor Rodin and later his lover. She was obsessive in her behavior toward him as she was in her painting. He found her passion worrying and exhausting; she was twenty-eight, he was sixty-three.
In 1913 she converted to Catholicism; this period of passionate sexual love and passionate religiousity was also a time of great artistic growth. She moved to Meudon, a suburb of Paris, and began a long connection with a group of Dominican sisters.
Although she rarely exhibited, when she did it was at prestigious salons. Her later work for all its soft-edged sensuality, seems touched by the iconography of sacred art. But she did not come to a good end; in 1928, at the age of fifty-two, she developed an unrequited passion for a devout woman named Vera Oumancoff. Gwen moved to a shed behind the house where she had once lived. She lost her faith and her desire to paint, and eventually neglected herself, failing to bathe and change her clothes and nearly starving herself. She died alone in 1939, at a public hospital in Dieppe. Her brother Augustus meant to mark the grave, but it slipped his mind; no one is sure where she is buried.
Born to Love by Mary Gordon in Art and Antiques, April 1992