Monday 2: Self Portrait
Gwen John 
1902

This self-portrait shows the artist looking out into the direction of the viewer. However, there is a sense that she is lost in her own world. Often when a figure in a painting looks at the viewer, it draws us deeper into the painting and makes us feel included. However in this portrait, the artist has somehow created a greater distance because we get the sense that she is looking straight through us. Her emotionless face further gives the sense of a woman consumed by her own inner dialogue which she does not want to share with us. 

 

The artist here is Gwen John who was born in 1876 in Wales. The second of four children, her mother enjoyed painting watercolours and so encouraged her children’s interest in art. She was only 8 years old when her mother, Augusta, died and the family moved to the Welsh seaside town of Tenby in Pembrokeshire where Gwen would often spend her time sketching.

 

During her lifetime she was often under the shadow of her brother, Augustus, who attended the Slade School in London at the same time as Gwen. They were very different in both personality and artistic styles. He took on the persona of a Bohemian artist, with a beard to match, whereas Gwen was much more of an introvert and lived a more private and later reclusive life, with only cats for company. 

 

After finishing at the Slade School in 1898, Gwen went on her first visit to France. While in Paris she trained under the American-born artist James McNeil Whistler. You can see the influence Whistler had on Gwen through the subdued pallet of her paintings. The dominant colour in this self portrait is brown, as seen in the background, her hair and shawl. Even the red of her blouse has a muddy tonality to it. 

 

Two years after this self portrait, Gwen moved to France on a more permanent basis, most likely because of wanting to get away from her family ties, believing that ‘the family has had its day.’ She earned money as an artist’s model and it was as a model that she met the celebrated sculptor Auguste Rodin. Despite their 36 year age difference the two became lovers for ten years. Some say that Rodin was the true love of her life despite her having relations with both men and women throughout her life. Living in Paris opened her up to a world of other artists such as Picasso and Matisse. Despite running in these artistically radical circles, she was uninfluenced by their artistic styles and remained true to her style of intimate portraits. Her most famous works are of unidentified women, sitting on a chair with their hands in their lap. She once commented on some watercolour paintings by the post-impressionist artist Cézanne as being ‘very good, but I prefer my own’ which shows the self assurance that she felt later in life. This is in contrast to this earlier self-portrait where she seems much more timid and self-critical. 

 

Her talents and public recognition have grown since her death in 1939, while her brother’s have diminished, something that in fact Augustus himself predicted when he said that one day he would be remembered only as the brother of Gwen John.