Queer Places:
Slade School of Fine Art, University College London, Gower St, Kings Cross, London WC1E 6BT, UK
Cimetière De Janval, Rue Montigny, 76200 Dieppe, France

Gwendolen Mary John (22 June 1876 – 18 September 1939) was a Welsh artist who worked in France for most of her career. Her paintings, mainly portraits of anonymous female sitters, are rendered in a range of closely related tones. Although she was overshadowed during her lifetime by her brother Augustus John, her reputation has grown steadily since her death.

Gwen John was born in Haverfordwest, Wales, the second of four children of Edwin William John and his wife Augusta (née Smith). Gwen's elder brother was Thornton John; her younger siblings were Augustus and Winifred.[1] Edwin John was a solicitor whose dour temperament cast a chill over his family, and Augusta was often absent from the children owing to ill health, leaving her two sisters—stern Salvationists—to take her place in the household.[2] Augusta was an amateur watercolourist, and both parents encouraged the children's interest in literature and art.[3] Her mother died when she was eight years of age. Regarding her mother's death and the loss of her influence, her brother, Augustus, later wrote: "My mother would no doubt have been helpful, but she died when I was a small child, after, I fear, a very tearful existence."[4]

Following the mother’s premature death in 1884, the family moved to Tenby in Pembrokeshire, Wales, where the early education of Gwen and her sister Winifred was provided by governesses.[5] Aside from her sister, she also had two brothers, Thornton and Augustus. The siblings often went to the coast of Tenby to sketch. John said that she would make "rapid drawings of beached gulls, shells and fish on stray pieces of paper, or sometimes in the frontispiece of the book she was reading."[4] Although she painted and drew from an early age, Gwen John's earliest surviving work dates from her nineteenth year.[6]

Gwen John c.1900 Gwen John (1876–1939) National Portrait Gallery, London

Throughout her life John was attracted to people of both sexes. Although August Rodin was her great love, she had a number of same-sex relationships. Whilst at Slade she developed a passion for an unnamed woman which her brother Augustus describes in his autobiography Chiaroscuro and whilst walking to Paris with Dorelia, she developed a passion for a married girl, who then followed them to Paris. Rodin, who had a sexual relationship with his assistant Hilda Flodin, drew erotic drawings of Flodin and John together. The German painter Ida Gerhardi fell in love with John but it was not reciprocated. John’s last passion was Véra Oumançoff, for whom she developed an obsession, much to the discomfort of Véra. [44]

Gwen John's last dated work is a drawing of 20 March 1933, and no evidence suggests that she drew or painted during the remainder of her life.[35] On 10 September 1939, she wrote her will and then travelled to Dieppe, where she collapsed and was hospitalized. She died there on 18 September 1939 and was buried in Janval Cemetery.[36] According to Paul Johnson in Art: A New History, 'she appears to have starved to death' (p. 675).

Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC

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  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gwen_John