A Muse For Rodin – The Welsh Painter Gwen John
Rodin’s international success had begun around 1900. Critical acclaim allowed him to display daring, racy art and to revolutionise the art of sculpting by creating separate pieces of body parts as autonomous pieces of art. His long-time muse was a young Welsh painter named Gwen John. Michael Neubauer introduces her in this issue of sisterMAG and takes a closer look at her life.
- Text: Dr. Michael Neubauer
Rodin’s muse – Gwen John
In 1897, the American painter James McNeill Whistler founded the International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers in London. In 1903, he passed away. For the opening of a Whistler-exhibition in 1905 in London, a monument was supposed to be erected in his memory. The artist chosen to make this monument was Auguste Rodin, president of the society since 1903.
Rodin’s international success had begun around 1900. Critical acclaim allowed him to display the daring, racy sculptures that were popular in Paris at the time and to revolutionise the art of sculpting by creating separate pieces of body parts as autonomous pieces of art.
To simply create an accurate portrait of James McNeill Whistler seemed too simple to Rodin. He wanted to express more than Whistler’s outer appearance — to show his ideas, intuitions and art. He thought of the muse that had inspired Whistler: a graceful, well-formed female model. The model Rodin would use appeared in the shape of young Welsh painter Gwendolen Mary John, called Gwen John.
Gwen was born in the small town of Haverfordwest in the south of Wales in 1876. When she was eight years old, her family moved to the Welsh coastal town of Tenby. A rugged, lonely landscape with steep cliffs and fields for agricultural work imbued the young girl with a love of freedom and nature. She often took her younger brother, Auguste, sketching – they both loved to draw and paint. While their education at home was certainly lacking, Gwen learned how to behave like a lady and even how to speak some French. Both she and Auguste were allowed to study painting at the »Slade School of Art« in London for three years.
When she visited Paris as part of her studies in 1898, Gwen met the American painter James McNeill Whistler. With him, she was able to shape her natural talent for colour, shades and paint – a first exhibition in London immediately followed. Originally planning to travel to Rome with her friend Dorelia McNeill, a future wife of her brother Auguste, their trip ended in Toulouse. In 1904, they both moved to Paris, where Rodin was the sparkling North Star on the dark sky of Parisian artists. Naturally, the focussed and ambitious Gwen sought him out to be a model. She was captured by his warm, human friendliness as the 63-year-old artist admired her young, athletic body. As Gwen fell madly in love, Rodin began to see her as his perfect muse. Both his studio and her small, rented room became the romantic setting of their passionate relationship. Whenever she was by herself, Gwen wrote hundreds of short letters to Rodin.
Translated from the novel Die Muse des Bildhauers (A sculptor’s muse) by Alexandra Lavizzari (p.131, German Edition):
»O mein Meister, es gibt keinen Mann wie Sie auf der Welt, Sie sind die Schönheit meines Lebens! Sie kümmern sich um meine Bedürfnisse, das ist so gütig von Ihnen, aber wenn ich hungerte oder kalt hätte, wäre meine Seele noch die zufriedenste und glücklichste auf Erden, … weil ich Sie liebe, mein Meister, aber meine Liebe zu Ihnen ist das Schönste, was Sie mir geben.«
»O my master, there is no man like you walking this earth, you are the beauty of my life! You take care of me and my needs, how gracious of you, but even if I were starving or cold my soul would be the most content and happy on earth … because I love you, my master, and my love for you is the most beautiful gift you could give me.«
She painted less and spent slow hours contemplating her failure alternating with sleepless nights thinking about her »master«. Friends, relatives, her beloved brother and even Rodin himself tried to put an end to her mad love to no avail. He started meeting other women and cut her off, but nothing helped. She sought him out on his way to the train station, spent the nights in his garden in Meudon, ate little and stopped taking care of herself.
Even though his love might have faded, Rodin kept up a deep friendship with Gwen up until his death in 1917. They regularly exchanged letters that helped and stabilised her. This trust also made Gwen take up painting again even though she now had to force herself to work with brushes and colour.
Gwen was also friends with Rodin’s former secretary Rainer Maria Rilke and wrote to him until he passed away in 1926. He, too, tried to explain the artist’s changing behaviour (Quelle s.o. p. 183):
»Nicht nur Rodin, auch andere Künstler, Cezanne und van Gogh zum Beispiel, haben ihr Leben der Kunst geschenkt und von ihr nie etwas erwartet. Kompromisse in der Kunst sind nicht möglich, geht man sie ein, so geschieht es stets auf Kosten der Kunst.«
»Not just Rodin, but other artists like Cezanne and van Gogh have completely devoted their lives to their art without expecting anything in return. Compromises are not possible in art – if you make them, your art pays.«
The »Muse« to honour James MacNeill Whistler would never be finished. In Rodin’s style, the arms are only partly there as the woman is standing on one leg, the other one lifted and splayed out to climb the »mountain of fame«. Her slightly crooked torso has never seen the Thames and the Chelsea Embankment – the Whistler-Muse was such a shock for the society that they gave up the work. She remains in front of the Musee Rodin in Paris.
While Rodin was still alive, Gwen’s work found another admirer that would further her art. In 1909, a New York lawyer had admired her paintings in London that had already been sold. He offered to buy any of her work that she was willing to sell. Twenty paintings and 100 drawings made their way across the pond as Gwen moved into a small apartment in Meudon, still favouring close proximity to Rodin. She did not have to be a model anymore and even managed to buy a small house in later years. Drawing back from social life, she grew strict with herself and turned to Catholicism as she kept searching for someone to love. When she met her Russian neighbour Vera Oumancoff, Gwen once again fell madly in love without seeing her passion returned. Presents, drawings and letters were left unacknowledged. After a short bout of sickness and a trip to the seaside, Gwen John died at 63 years old in Dieppe.
Her paintings were mostly portraits of beloved people, still lives, self-portraits and cats in small formats. She kept most of her work to herself with no interest in selling.
More about Rodin’s other famous muse, Camille Claudel, in sisterMAG 28.