A Catholic Painter in the Shadows: Gwen John

The following essay first appeared in the September 1995 issue of Crisis Magazine.


Augustus John, her extrovert younger brother, a prodigious talent in the world of painting and portraiture, remarked that his sister brought nothing for herself and yet had managed to see to it that her cats would be fed and cared for while she was away. This quality of self-forgetfulness which crossed the barrier into self-destructiveness, brought an end to the career of one of the few notable Catholic painters of the post-Impressionist period.


The isolated and forlorn condition of Gwen John’s passing only served to fuel, what Cecily Langdale has called “the Gwen John legend.” Sister of one flamboyant genius and lover of another, Gwen John was herself a recluse who painted in artistic isolation. Her artistic achievement was essentially unknown during her own lifetime, generally unappreciated thereafter, and is only now coming to be recognized as greater than that of her celebrated brother Augustus, to whom she is invariably compared.

Yet, like all legends, this one contains portions of both truth and falsehood. While she lived a deliberately eremitic life, often exhibiting a dread of strangers, especially in her last ten years, she also developed friendships with such artists as the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, Arthur Symons, the British exponent of Symbolism, and John Quinn, a New York connoisseur of the avant garde who served as her exclusive agent. Although not primarily interested in theories of aesthetics or even art criticism, she met leading artists of the day, including Picasso, Braque, and Matisse. While Gwen John found Matisse to be a snob, she thought Rouault “the greatest painter of our day.”

Indeed two of her relationships, a love affair with Auguste Rodin and a friendship with Vera Oumançoff, sister-in-law of Jacques Maritain, could be described as obsessional attachments. Gwen John’s reputation has been refracted through these two relationships, provoking a biography in 1983 by Susan Chitty and a 1984 BBC documentary, A Very Private View. More recently, Cecily Langdale, an art dealer in New York, and David Fraser Jenkins have sought to move the discussion away from the artist’s passionate and often tortured personal affections, to a consideration of her art work itself and her position within modern art and painting. This approach, though frankly secular, has the advantage of making the appropriate discrimination between an artist’s work and her amorous life or psychic underside.

Nevertheless, in this effort to distinguish the life of Gwen John from her work there may be a danger in disassociating her, too abruptly, from heteronomous influences which affected her work, in particular her conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1913. There was a particular Catholic side to Gwen John, although the faith took hold in a personality of marked quirkiness.

Gwen John was born in Wales in 1876, the second oldest in a family of four children. Her younger brother Augustus excelled in drawing and was sent to The Slade School in 1894. Not to be held back, Gwen joined him one year later in 1895. The Slade was at that time in its halcyon period led by Frederick Brown and his assistant, Henry Tonks. Drawing instruction was a hallmark of the school (Chesterton studied there from 1894-95) and students were encouraged to make copies after the old masters. Augustus won the competition in 1897 with a copy after the manner of Wateau. He was by all accounts “the first draughtsman in England,” with a personal flair that made him the envy of his fellow students.
Gwen was also deft in drawing but she skirted the shadow of her younger brother, giving an early indication of her intention to develop a style uniquely her own. Their relationship was non-competitive and highly affectionate. Although critical of Gwen’s evident unconcern about her health, Augustus was foremost in appreciating her art. What his own work owed in technical mastery, he felt that Gwen’s pictures more than compensated in interior feeling and expressiveness.

After the Slade came a six month stay at James McNeill Whistler’s newly established, Académie Carmen in Paris. Whistler was the rage at the Slade School and Gwen John, upon arrival, was already painting in low tones with the intimate subject matter of which he approved. Augustus inquired of the celebrated man what he thought of Gwen’s “feeling for character.” “Character?” returned Whistler, “What’s that? It’s tone that matters. Your sister has a fine sense of tone.” These low tones give to her paintings and gouaches a muted quality which suggest inwardness. For this reason, some have found her art disconcerting or difficult to view, yet she was oblivious to such comments. “As to whether I have anything worth expressing,” she wrote to Ursula Trywhitt, “that is apart from the question. I may never have anything to express, except this desire for a more interior life.”

Interiority, what the poet Hopkins termed “inscape,” is the hallmark of Gwen John’s oeuvre, which includes fewer than two hundred paintings but at least several thousand drawings. In scale and subject matter, Gwen John’s art is redolent of French intimiste painting-seated subjects, most often women, depicted in somber earth tones.

In 1904, Gwen John moved to Paris, partly to escape the radiating influence of her brother, but also as a natural evolution in her artistic development. There she met and fell in love with the sculptor, Auguste Rodin. She began to model for him and became his mistress. Their relationship lasted over a period of fourteen years until the sculptor’s death in 1917. It was marked by an unusual intensity on her part, witnessed by the more than two thousand letters she wrote to him, now collected at the Musée Rodin in Paris. According to Cecily Langdale, the letters are alternatively “plaintive, despairing, and shrill.” “You have shown me impoliteness in your workshop and on the street,” complains Gwen John. But her letter turns to supplication, “I pray to you, Master, please send me a word.” Despite this petulance in tone, Rodin was concerned for her well-being. Two years before his death he could write: “I love you and I desire your happiness.” It has been conjectured that her relationship with Rodin, brought her closer to Catholicism. He frequented Notre Dame Cathedral and would probably have been accompanied by Gwen John on any number of occasions.

By the year 1910, her personal style had reached maturity. After that she restricted herself to a very select field of subjects: a few still lifes, interiors, and landscapes, the remainder being all female portraits. In 1911 she moved to Meudon, a suburb of Paris, in order to be close to Rodin who kept a country house there. In October of 1912 she began instruction in Roman Catholicism and was received into the Church the following year. Coincident with her reception, Girl Reading at the Window, a 16 x 10 inch oil appeared at the Armory Show, lent by her patron John Quinn. Quinn was instrumental in mounting the show, which announced the coming of modern art to the United States. The painting has been on view at the Museum of Modern Art since 1971.

Her faith took root, however, in a personality which grew increasingly bent on detachment from the world. “Aloneness,” she wrote, “is nearer God, nearer reality.” Yet friends wondered whether this asceticism, seemingly countenanced by her turn toward Catholicism, did not mask psychic turbulence. She was said to be “reserved, secretive, with a passionate violence that caused her suffering.”

In 1926, Gwen John established her final strong attachment, this time with Vera Oumançoff, sister of Raïssa Maritain. The relationship began when Gwen John sought the spiritual counsel of the Maritains. She had been profoundly disturbed over the death of Rilke, and wondered whether one ought to pray for his soul in proximity to the region where he expired. After the initial encounter outside the parish church in Meudon, however, she fastened her attentions on Vera with the same fevered intensity she had on Rodin. These affections, “intolerably engrossing” said Jacques Maritain, were regulated by Vera who insisted that Gwen desist from her torrent of impassioned letters, and write only once a week. Thus began a series of letters and accompanying drawings sent by the artist to Vera Oumançoff, usually on Monday, from January 1928 to July 1929. Vera saved these drawings, although evidently she did not appreciate their artistic value. At the time of Vera’s death in 1959, the Gwen John drawings were found stored in a cupboard.

By 1930, Vera felt the need to sever the relationship entirely, for she believed that the spiritual welfare of Gwen John demanded a new, harsher discipline. Reflecting back on this episode, Jacques Maritain explained in his Notebooks that Vera had come to understand “the impossibility of remedying the need she [Gwen John] had of torturing herself.” Oddly, Maritain himself, despite his known support and admiration for the works of Rouault and Chagall, appeared to lack any personal appreciation for Gwen John’s art. While he readily attests an “unheard-of-passion for her art . . . and exceptional talent,” he praises the paintings strictly through quotations from intermediaries. At any rate, these 200 gouaches and pencil sketches, bring us near to the end of John’s productive years. After 1933, she ceased painting altogether and turned to gardening in her small plot on the rue Babie.

The relation between art and faith in a particular artist is always shrouded by a certain opacity. In the case of Gwen John, where polarities and tensions seemed to jangle perpetually, the matter is further darkened. On one level, that of her craft, her mature style was said to be in place before her conversion. Sir John Rothenstein concludes: “the fact is that neither of the scorching and exalting experiences she underwent [Rodin and conversion] appears to have had any immediate effect on her art; they seem to have neither hastened nor retarded its serene progress.” Such a view accords with the secularized approach, mentioned above; yet it relates equally well with Thomistic aesthetics. Etienne Gilson’s remarks in The Art of the Beautiful are relevant:

The Italian masters of the Renaissance painted what they were asked to paint; some of them were pious men, others were notorious unbelievers or, at least, suspected of unbelief. At any rate one does not detect any definite relationship between artistic talent and religious faith. A very pious man can be a very poor artist and his talent does not improve if he decides to build a church, to write a Mass, to compose pious verse or to paint religious subjects. As an artist, he remains just what he is.

Thus there is no fear or hesitation in affirming the distinction between the two orders-art and faith. Nor is there any difficulty in accepting Cecily Langdale’s opinion that for John, the churchgoers at St. Michael’s in Meudon-whom she sketched from her seat in the rear of the nave-were “merely objects” upon which her trained eye happened to fasten. Yet, unlike Gauguin, the unbeliever, whose The Yellow Christ evoked the pieties of Breton peasants “from without.” In Gwen John’s case, the few programmed “religious subjects” which she painted were necessarily done “from within.” Thus in certain cases, for example her masterpiece, Mere Pouseppin, an updated portrait of the 17th century foundress of the Dominican Sisters of the Presentation; or her numerous drawings of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, we find a masterful technique placed in the service of devotional Catholicism.

Religion, in fact had a central role in the life of Gwen John. Vera Oumançoff told Sir John Rothenstein that John was “a very practicing Catholic, she received Holy Communion every day.” Cecily Langdale recounts the correspondence between Gwen John and Jesuit Father Martin D’Arcy. It was his book, The Mass and the Redemption which peaked her theological interest and moved her to write him. He reciprocated in two letters. Still, her primary calling was to her art, not theology. Maritain is at pains to challenge Wyndham Lewis’s assertion that Gwen John “belonged to the Catholic Revival in France.” “Considering her total solitude,” Maritain reacted, such a view was “senseless.” The philosopher is adamant in denying that he was ever a “friend” of Gwen John or that she had participated in the Maritains’ Thomist circle at 10 rue du Parc.

Yet it is not only the connection between art and faith in Gwen John that we find absorbing; it is the way in which both of these things found a home within a personality in turbulence. John’s obsessive side; her moments of pride followed by deep insecurity; the perfectionist impulse which made her hesitate to part with commissioned pieces, giving rise to the “myth” that she abhorred exhibiting; her fixation on Rodin and then Vera-while, at the same time, treating the world well lost-each series of polarities makes her own portrait terribly contemporaneous. Her struggles ring with an immediacy for us. It was for this reason that John Rothenstein recalled a comparison with Pascal and Newman. He noted the quality in the many sheets of cribbed prayers which she left behind, interspersed between penned quotations from the saints and the poet Baudelaire.

She lacked, constitutionally, any ability to adopt as a rule the developing spirit of communality which the popes were urging upon the Church. In the face of the corporateness which was coming of age in the social encyclicals, John had only her fierce and lonely artistic habitus to offer. Although a daily communicant, who brought her sketchbook to church, John admitted how she loved the humble parishioners of Meudon as long as she didn’t have to speak to them.

The Davis and Langdale Gallery in New York recently concluded a retrospective exhibit of paintings, watercolors, and drawings, an exhibition of works by Gwen John. Many in the art world must have happened in, discussions there were very high key. For most of the cognoscenti, the faith of the painter was of no point. She might as well have been a theosophist or an adept of automatic writing. But she was a Catholic, and in the words of her biographer, gallery owner Cecily Langdale, “though perhaps a minor one, she must nonetheless be acclaimed as an enduring master.”

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