Gwen John: a life by Sue Roe

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The Independent Culture

There are certain families, the Brontës and the Stephens (Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell) to name but two, that produce prodigiously talented offspring. The Johns were another. Gwen and Augustus John grew up with their younger sister and elder brother in Pembrokeshire. When Gwen was eight their mother died, and their stern, broken-hearted solicitor father left the children pretty much to their own devices.

For the 1880s, they had a remarkably unrestricted childhood, running wild without shoes and socks on the beach at Tenby, where Gwen and her younger brother began to draw gulls and shells. These bohemian beginnings were to set the tone for the rest of Gwen's life.

After her death in 1939, the myth grew that she had been a recluse. Certainly, her life was somewhat overshadowed by her colourful, talented brother Augustus, and his flamboyant domestic arrangements. In fact, Gwen exhibited regularly, was collected by the American patron John Quinn and led a daring, unconventional life. Augustus predicted that "50 years after my death I shall be remembered as Gwen John's brother." Indeed, it is Gwen who is now recognised as the great artistic innovator.

Making use of Gwen's passionate, unpublished letters, Sue Roe has created a vivid picture of this remarkable, shy, strong-willed woman. Roe follows Gwen to the Slade School of Art, in London, and on her reckless unchaperoned walking-trip on the Continent, "carrying a minimum of belongings and a great deal of painting equipment", when she slept outdoors and lived on bread, grapes and beer.

She made it as far as Toulouse and then went to Paris. Gwen was never to live in England again. She supported herself by modelling in the bohemian circles of early 20th-century Paris, where she met Rilke and Picasso. Among those she posed for was Rodin, with whom she had an intense affair, although 36 years his junior.

Roe conjures the complexities of this relationship with great empathy. Although married, Rodin had had many lovers and used his models to explore female sexuality and the female form. For Gwen this passion was to mould her life. She yearned for complete erotic and spiritual unity.

To quote Rilke, she experienced all beauty as "a quiet enduring form of love and longing". Despite her devotion to painting, Rodin became her main passion; she was even prepared to sacrifice her art, waiting for hours in case he should decide to drop by. Yet although he paid her rent and continued to visit her spasmodically, virtually until his death, he could not meet her need for spiritual symbiosis.

After his death she turned to Catholicism ­ though her need for Jesus seems alarmingly close to her need for Rodin. She longed for intimacy, and her apparent hard-won serenity masked a deep turbulence.

This quality imbues her haunting paintings. Still and austere, they are filled with restrained emotion, and have something of the tranquillity of a Vermeer coupled with the intensity of Rembrandt's portraits. She had exacting standards and kept copious notebooks filled with technical jottings on colour tones. After her death Augustus read them, saying: "Astonishing how she cultivated the scientific method. I feel ready to shut up shop."

In 1911 she moved to Meudon, sleeping in what was virtually a garden shed with her cats and giving herself periods of time when she would see no one and just paint. She drew her cats and the children in church, but mostly she painted women in rooms, trying for an elusive perfection. In the 1970s her paintings were much used on Virago book covers, as if presenting her as a feminist icon. But she defies such easy stereotyping.

What we discover in Roe's insightful biography is a woman of fierce independence and intelligence, an artist of unique vision and talent who nevertheless would have given up everything for a man. We watch her grow through her struggles to become not only the recluse and great artist, but a woman who never compromised as she lived life to the full.

Sue Hubbard