Gwen John: A Painter's Life

Roe, Sue

Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001
ISBN 10: 0374113173 / ISBN 13: 9780374113179
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Synopsis: A revealing, animated biography of a sexual and intellectual rebel and a great painter

In 1942, at the height of his fame, Augustus John predicted that 'fifty years from now I shall be known as the brother of Gwen John'. Gwen John (1876-1939) is indeed now recognised as a great artistic innovator, yet for years her life remained shrouded in the myth of the solitary recluse. Born in Pembrokeshire, Gwen followed her brother to the Slade. Her future was bound up with Augustus, his women and his coteries, yet she was also daring and highly original, living determinedly in her own way.

Defiant yet shy, she painted and modelled amid the Bohemian circles of early twentieth-century Paris and embarked on a long, intense love affair with France's most legendary artistic figure, the sculptor Rodin. A friend of Symbolist poets and post-Impressionist painters, later she turned increasingly to religion, achieving a deep serenity which masked her inner turbulence and creating her haunting paintings, described as delicate and austere, restrained and still.

Based on her lively and passionate unpublished letters and lavishly illustrated, this vivid new biography challenges our prejudices about the ways we evaluate women artists and finally uncovers the life of this ardent and complicated personality, one of the finest artists of her day.

Review: Her brother Augustus is better known today, but in the early decades of the 20th century Gwen John (1876-1939) was equally, if not more, respected as a painter (and not just as model and muse to her lover Rodin). Particularly in Paris, where she made her home, and in New York, where she was represented by pioneering art dealer John Quinn, she was acclaimed for the sureness of her technique and the haunting psychological penetration with which she captured the inner lives of her subjects. Drawing on her letters and journals, novelist and poet Sue Roe is able to chronicle the evolution of John's artistic, emotional, and spiritual strivings in fascinating detail. Rodin encouraged her work, but Roe perceptively notes that John's passionate desire to submit to the sculptor warred with her "profound sense of independence [and] need to access and control her own muse." She was sustained by a series of intimate friendships with other women (including her brother's wife and mistress), as well as a burgeoning Catholic faith. Far from being the eccentric recluse of posthumous legend, John exhibited and sold her work regularly and had an active social life. The stillness and harmony of her work, Roe convincingly argues, were the product of enormous self-discipline and restraint imposed on a turbulent psyche. This sensitive, sympathetic biography arouses our admiration and awe for a woman who "lived uniquely, with dedication and daring." --Wendy Smith

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Title: Gwen John: A Painter's Life
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication Date: 2001
Binding: Hardcover
Book Condition: Good

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