Modernism – Gwen John

Gwen John (1876-1939) was the sister of Augustus John (1878 -1961). She studied at the Slade School of Art for three years before visiting Paris in 1898 and studying at Whistler’s Académie Carmen. After returning to London for several years she finally settled in France in 1904. To make money she modelled, mainly for female artists. She also modelled for Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) and became his mistress, a relationship which seems to have both motivated and distracted from her work in equal measure.

A Corner of the Artist’s Room in Paris, (1907-1909) [External Link]

Her style was quiet, reflective, often of interiors or portraits of women and young girls indoors. Religion played a significant part in her life from around 1910 but even before being received into the Catholic church in 1913 her paintings exude a spiritual quality. She herself acknowledged this referring to her work or state of mind while working as recueillie, meaning meditative.

Girl Reading at the Window, (1911) [External Link]

She also used herself as a model and can be seen in Girl Reading at the Window. Here is an example of her work which can be seen in the wider context of religious art. The female figure standing reading by a window references the iconography of artwork with The Annunciation as a subject.

While often portrayed as reclusive Gwen John had a knowledge not only of older art traditions but of contemporary work. In France, after the First World War, there was a ‘call to order’ and a return among some artists towards classicism and more conservative artistic traditions. Catholicism became associated with national identity and a revival of pride in a society broken by war. Images of women generally, and the figure of the Virgin Mary in particular, became more widespread representing family and fertility.

Maurice Denis (1870-1943) encouraged a revival in religious art and wrote several articles advocating new techniques. He was not in favour of images showing excessive piety or religious ecstasy but to show religious subjects in everyday domestic scenes and in modern dress.

Domestic scenes were also significant in Britain where the Camden Group, including Walter Sickert (1860-1942), painted interiors showing humble interiors, often with female figures.

The Brown Teapot (c. 1915-16) [External Link]

Gwen John’s work at this time shows her awareness of the wider artistic influences of the time. However, the images she produced were true to her own need for a contemplative, interior life. The quiet interior of the room with the brown teapot reflects that inner life. The brushwork is looser than earlier work and she works with a limited range of tones. The limited palette and range of tones was something that she continually experimented with and which contributes to the quiet reflective quality of her work.

She continued to respond to new approaches and techniques. She studied under André Lhote (1885-1962), but differed from his theory that the formal arrangements of a painting were of greater concern than the object being painted.

Increasingly Gwen John, influenced by Cézanne (1839-1906), worked in series, focusing on a particular subject and creating different versions of it. Her later drawings in church show this with many, of nuns and young girls, developed later in studio into watercolour and gouache studies. The composition of her gouache studies becomes increasingly pared down to one, or, perhaps, two figures painted in restricted colours.


John, G. (1907-1909) A Corner of the Artist’s Room in Paris [Painting] At: [Accessed on 19.06.17]

John, G. (1911) Girl Reading at the Window [Painting] At: [Accessed on 19.06.17]

John, G. (c. 1915-16) The Brown Teapot [Painting] At: [Accessed on 19.06.17]


Foster, A. (1999) Gwen John. London: Tate Gallery Publishing.

Frank, T. (2007) ‘Gwen John: Her Art and Spirituality’ In: [online] At: (Accessed on 19.06.17)