GWEN JOHN: A Painter's Life

Sue Roe, Author . Farrar, Straus & Giroux $26 (464p) ISBN 978-0-374-11317-9

British novelist, poet and critic Roe (Estella) offers a biography of the painter John (1876–1939), who focused on Whistler-like portraits and spent some time as mistress to the great French sculptor Auguste Rodin. Once undervalued because of the celebrity of her now-neglected painter brother Augustus John (1878–1961), Gwen John is an utterly British subject in her lifelong shyness and reticence, yet offers a welcome alternative for Brit-o-phile readers weary of the Bloomsbury circle (Roe's Writing and Gender: Virginia Woolf's Writing Practice among the plethora of titles). This new book tells more than most readers will want to know about degrees of feeling in John's relationship with Rodin and her emotions when she loses her cat, Quinet. Despite the book's subtitle, there is mostly vague and generalized analysis of the paintings themselves: "...her work gained a strong, fluid sense of immediacy and an intimacy between artist and subject," is a typical assay. The many women Johns painted reveal some interesting psychological states, including bleary depression, sexual repression and clear excitement—sometimes all in the same image. But Roe gets too caught up in landlords' bills and the like, and fails to focus clearly on John's highest achievements (shown in 16 pages of b&w and color images). As a modern woman artist, Johns had a life about one-tenth as interesting as that of contemporaries like Mina Loy, but this recognition of her contribution should at least restore her to the era's artistic ferment. (Nov.)

Reviewed on: 10/15/2001
Release date: 12/01/2001
Genre: Nonfiction
Open Ebook - 384 pages - 978-1-4090-2930-4
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