Gwen John Painted Stillness
Researching Paris Red, I read widely about subjects directly and tangentially related to Victorine Meurent and Édouard Manet. Susan Chitty’s book about English artist Gwen John was both helpful and beautifully written. And let me declare here that almost everything I know about Gwen John I learned from Chitty’s Gwen John: 1876-1939. Before I read this book six or seven years ago, I didn’t even know Gwen John existed.
After studying art in London, Gwen John moved to Paris. Her original plan, according to Chitty, was to stay in Paris for a few months, modelling, and then return to London. All that changed when Gwen John met and began to model for Rodin.
Gwen John fell deeply in love with the sculptor, who was 63, and he dominated her life for the next ten years. At times, she wrote him three letters a day, often recounting in detail her sexual pleasure with him. (She once wrote that if she didn’t have sex with Rodin at least once a week, she felt “like a stream in winter.”)
Outside of the time Gwen John spent with Rodin, it seems she lived mostly in isolation when she was in Paris. She had contact with people who modeled for her, but her most constant companion was her cat Tiger, a gift from Rodin. I think some of her isolation was natural—she was an introvert—but I think she struggled at times with city life and interactions she had with people. She was not insulated by money or class in Paris.
But I also think Gwen John chose isolation. Even though Rodin visited her just once a week in her room, she stayed home every afternoon, perhaps just hoping he would visit, or perhaps just enjoying daydreams about her lover.
The image at the top of this post is titled A Corner of the Artist’s Room, and it shows Gwen John’s home on Rue Cherche Midi in 1907. Tiger liked the wicker chair, and the room was a peaceful sanctuary. She wrote to Rodin, “My room is so delicious after a whole day outside, it seems to me that I am not myself except in my room and in my master’s studio.” Those were the two places Gwen John liked to be, and I think that great contentment comes across in the painting. Susan Chitty wrote of the painting that “the chair and table each assume a compelling and expectant stillness.” I agree, but I will take the assessment a step further: it is precisely that stillness that Gwen John strived to paint.
You can see this stillness in many of her works, including the image below:
You can see a variation on it in this simple painting of a cat:
But I think nowhere do you get a better depiction of stillness than in Gwen John’s painting of a road outside Meudon, where Rodin lived at times during the summers in the Villa des Brillants.
To me, the painting of a figure on a pale road between green hedges and trees is a perfect depiction of a summer day. A summer day when nothing—no thing—happens, but which is filled with life: insects tick and scratch in the grass, birds fly overhead, and you can feel the heat of the sun beating down on you. Life is happening, but there is a profound feeling of stillness.
Maybe I relate to this painting so strongly because I live on that kind of country road. In the photo below, all kinds of pine trees line the left side of the road, and on the right, at the forefront, big bluestem grass, wild bergamot, yarrow, and goldenrod grow. Bluebirds, tree swallows, snakes, salamanders, butterflies and skunks often provide movement, and the road is never silent (in part because I’m making noise as I walk on the gravel)—but the road is always still.
I think Gwen John wanted to render those moments of quiet alertness, and I think she succeeded over and over.