Gwen John, 'Vase of Flowers'

 

Gwen John is an internationally acclaimed artist. She was born in Haverfordwest, Pembrokeshire, south-west Wales in 1876. She studied at the Slade School of Fine Art, London in 1895 and from 1904 onwards spent most of her time in Paris where she studied at the Whistler’s School and where she modelled and began a passionate affair with the famous sculptor Auguste Rodin.

During her time Gwen John was overshadowed by the fame of her younger brother the artist Augustus John (1878-1961). Towards the end of her life her work began to attract interest but it is only during the last few decades there has been a great resurgence in the appreciation of Gwen John’s works. Today she is internationally acclaimed as one of the first modernist artists to emerge and has therefore eclipsed her brother’s fame.

Many of Gwen John’s subjects are of the female figure in an interior setting and this has been at time wrongly interpreted as a reference to her reclusive character for, as her brother Augustus John argued, ‘…she wasn’t chaste or subdued, but amorous and proud’. Her works are often compared to the famous interior images created by the Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675).

This oil on board painting was created in the style of dry painting with an impasto brush in Paris possibly as her affair with Rodin was drawing to a close and after the sudden death of her sister-in law- Augustus John’s’ wife- Ida John in 1907. During this period, encouraged by Rodin, Gwen John made a self-conscious return to painting and during which she created some of her best-known images whilst at the same time battling with depression and sporadic illness. This was during a period before she became increasingly interested in the Catholic faith. There is a sense of stillness to this work but also a sense of unease due to the garment which has been flung over a piece of furniture in the background.  John’s work is reminiscent of post-impressionist painting, due to small brush strokes and close values. John makes bold marks and is expressive in her use of colour and tone, without overcooking the lights and darks. This painting is strongly composed and balanced, owing to solid geometric shapes and forms.

All the works she created during this period were of private settings- mostly of her mansard room in Provence where she awaited Rodin’s visits who would not come. She therefore painted whilst waiting. As stated by David Fraser Jenkins: ‘…they take their power from the extreme delicacy of their representation, which implies a constant fragility’. Yet there is a paradox to these works as they also signify great strength and an independence of spirit, for the work also depicts the studio of an independent female artist who had made the journey from South West Wales to Paris in order to become a working artist which was ground breaking for the early twentieth century.