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Gwen John

Art and Life in London and Paris

Alicia Foster


The first critical illustrated biography of this much-loved artist, locating her firmly in the art worlds of late 19th- and early 20th-century London and Paris

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A Sunday Times Art Book of the Year

One of the most significant British artists of the twentieth century, Gwen John (1867-1939) made her life and work within the heady art worlds of London and Paris.

This critical biography demolishes the myth of Gwen John as a recluse and situates her, brilliant, singular and assured, amid a rich cultural milieu that included James McNeill Whistler, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Paula Modersohn-Becker and Maude Gonne. Art historian, curator and novelist Alicia Foster draws on previously unpublished archival sources to explore John’s many relationships with artists and writers, including her affair with Auguste Rodin, passionate friendships with Jeanne Robert Foster and Véra Oumançoff, and correspondence with, among others, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke and her Slade compatriot and fellow painter Ursula Tyrwhitt. John’s library, ranging from writing by her friends Rilke and Arthur Symonds to French philosophy and religious thought, is considered, as is her part in the increasing presence and visibility of women artists in the early-twentieth-century art world. From the life rooms of the Slade to the Paris salons, this is the story of an artist both devoted to her craft and deeply involved in the life and creativity of her era.

With over 120 illustrations, Gwen John: Art and Life in London and Paris offers a lively, meticulously researched portrait of Gwen John as a vital and utterly compelling figure in twentieth-century art history.


'Foster’s study, splendidly illustrated throughout, is a genuinely critical biography: a careful gathering at every stage of John’s career of the impact on her life and work of different milieux and individuals, of her response to ideas and techniques, currents and influences, letting us see a great artist working out her own way to live, draw, and paint'
Jenny Uglow, New York Review of Books

'In this thoughtful biography Gwen John takes her deserved place as leading lady. Recueilli was a favourite Gwen word - collected or gathered - but what takes you by surprise is her determination, her total dedication to art and, when it comes to Rodin, her sensuousness. The more you look at her initially unassuming paintings the more enigmatic, elusive and powerful they become. A present for a young woman with a room - and a will - of her own'
Laura Freeman, Art Books of the Year, The Sunday Times

'Exemplary in its social and art historical research'

'Foster shakes up the usual view of John, virtuosically reading her paintings not as quiet meditations on solitude and domesticity but as direct interventions in the world around her'
Times Literary Supplement

'Art historian Alicia Foster sets the record straight in this eminently lucid biography, revealing a well-connected personality embedded at the heart of international modernism'
Art Quarterly

'Beautifully illustrated throughout, the book breaks down the myth of the artist as a recluse and tells the story of her life, as well as painting a vivid portrait of London and Paris of her time'
The Artist

'A psychological portrait of a woman who helped develop her own mythology, not least through a combination of self-dramatisation and canny self-promotion … a welcome critical study of her work that acknowledges her ambition and places the artist within the various environments that inspired, shaped, and stimulated her'
Literary Review

'A brisk, beautifully illustrated biography'
Daily Telegraph

'Foster’s book and Pallant House’s exhibition give us a different Gwen John: sensuous, single-minded and experimental in how she chose to live and work'
The Times

'This new biography by art historian and long-term Gwen John scholar Alicia Foster re-examines John’s life and art in the light of previously unpublished archival material … Far from choosing to live an isolated existence, [Gwen John’s] many friendships with major artists, poets and writers of the day profoundly influenced her work, as is made abundantly clear from the wealth of illustrations'

'Foster’s new biography, which stands in as a catalogue for the show, does a better job of proving John’s “worldliness”'
London Review of Books

'Fascinating, handsomely illustrated … not only illuminates John’s work and personality as never before, but dispels a number of legends that have grown up about her life'
The Lady

'Extensively illustrated, erudite and readable'
The Burlington Magazine

'A splendid and deservedly well-received new biography of the artist, arguing that the old image of the introverted and reclusive painter should be tempered with a more socially engaged one'
Sean McGlynn, The Critic

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Product Information

Book Details

Format: Hardback

Size: 24.0 x 16.5 cm

Extent: 272 pp

Illustrations: 122

Publication date: 11 May 2023

ISBN: 9780500025574

Contents List

1. London 1895
2. Slade Revolution
3. Whistler and After
4. Paris 1904
5. Rodin/Rilke
6. Lettres à Julie
7. A Library
8. Faith
9. From the Left Bank to the New World
10. The Convalescent and the Generals
11. Salon Life
12. A Parisian in London
13. The Modern Interior
14. The Pilgrim
15. After

About the Author

Alicia Foster is an art historian, curator and novelist. Her publications include Tate Women Artists (2004), Gwen John (2015), Nina Hamnett (2021) and the novel Warpaint (2013), and in 2019 she curated ‘Radical Women: Jessica Dismorr and Her Contemporaries’, the first-ever museum show to focus on Dismorr, for which she also wrote the highly praised catalogue.