Artists Gwen John and Auguste Rodin — A Passionate Love Affair
I believe the French Sculptor and the Welsh Artist changed each other’s lives, and art…
For many years the artist Gwen John was overshadowed by her artist brother Augustus, as much by his overpowering personae as by his large, bold, somewhat extravagant work. Today that is no longer the case, with Gwen’s work a firmly established part, not only of British art, but of French, and particularly Parisian art.
I believe Gwen John’s passionate love affair with the sculptor Auguste Rodin, which she has described as the happiest time of her life, changed their lives and their art.
Perhaps it was Rodin’s overpowering personae, and his bold, and often extravagant art that attracted this small prim woman to him, or maybe it was his kindness when they first met as he dusted off an old wicker chair, which he then placed in front of the large stove in his studio for Gwen to warm herself before she removed her clothes?
There can be no doubt they were both attracted to each other at that first meeting to see if Gwen might make a good model. Rodin was delighted with what he saw, and as Susan Chitty writes in her biography of Gwen, Rodin explained that:
“ He preferred well-built women between thirty and forty. ‘It is then that they are at their highest and most vigorous power of expression. Their flesh is firm and the modelling at its fullest development. A young girl is a poor thing in comparison, her flesh and muscles eaten up by anaemia’.”
It would seem that Gwen was an ideal candidate, and looked larger with her clothes off, with good legs and neck. Rodin asked her to put her clothes on and report for work the following morning.
Rodin had been commissioned by the International Society of London to create a memorial to Whistler, and Gwen was to be the Muse that inspired him.
She was lithe and athletic, able to move quickly and hold unusual poses. He had never known a model such as Gwen before: a model that was also an artist — with a brother who was an artist — a female artist who had knowledge of using models in Tenby. She knew what was required of her, and she gave over to Rodin’s sudden and many demands to change position. She became oblivious to his assistants, who drew her from all angles, as their master worked.
Gwen enjoyed undressing for Rodin, enjoyed being naked in front of him, watching him as he modelled her in clay, taking mouthfuls of water and spraying the water over the drying clay, and Gwen if he got too close. She loved the way he smoothed the emerging clay figure, shaping the hips and the buttocks with his fingers and the palms of his hands, then doing the same over her hips and buttocks, then back to the clay. And as the day darkened he lit candles, and dismissed his staff, and by candlelight he kissed Gwen for the first time, and for the first time they made love in his massive candle lit studio. And as they made love a new happiness engulfed Gwen, and she opened up to him as she had never done to anyone before.
Each morning, before the assistants arrived, they kissed and made love, and the day’s work that followed was a continuation of their embraces.
As Susan Chitty writes:
“As the days passed work on the statue began to slow down. In the evenings, as soon as the assistants and the workmen were sent home and the sculptor’s hands were washed, the Muse’s celestial pose was abandoned for more earthly ones.” Rodin would then make love to her repeatedly. On one occasion the concierge came in and Rodin became “instantly calm.”
The concierge wasn’t the only one to interrupt their love making. A Miss Flodin, a friend of Gwen John’s, and one of Rodin’s assistants and a former lover, often came in and watched her old lover with Gwen. Eventually Miss Flodin joined them in their love making. Gwen then entered into “…a playful relationship with Flodin.”, with both women enjoying each other’s bodies in the absence of the ‘Master’.
When Rodin didn’t want Gwen’s services as a model anymore, Miss Flodin took her on. It was all rather fun and very bohemian — she knew her brother would have approved — but it was also beginning to get a bit complicated, and although Gwen still loved Rodin - and enjoyed the company of Miss Flodin - he was not the man he had been just a few weeks before, complaining of headaches, and suffering from exhaustion, and a lack of libido. They made love less often.
Gwen now wrote Rodin passionate and explicit love letters — he didn’t write back — which, for her, was an unburdening of the soul, which undoubtedly freed her as an artist. The work began to pour out of her.
Although Gwen did model once more for Rodin, her place had been taken by another, older woman.
The relationship slowly ended, but Gwen John was now a different woman, and a very different artist: more powerful, more honest, and strangely sensual, although her models seldom — with one exception — ever removed their clothes.
All of the portraits that Gwen did thereafter seem, somehow, to reflect herself more than the sitter. There is also a kind of what I can only describe as a ‘veil’ across the paintings, a slightly out of focus feeling that subdues the colouring and the outline, yet, at the same time enhancing the inner emotion of the piece. It’s strangely exciting, yet odd.
Rodin’s work after his brief affair with Gwen is certainly less brutal, more rounded, and, for me, more loving, and certainly more exposing than ever before. He too is pouring out his soul, and his obvious love for Gwen, although I doubt if he ever admitted his love.
He would continue to work solidly and happily, love his wife and his dogs, and enjoy his afternoon tea and cakes. He died of pneumonia in November 1917, aged 77. He left a huge amount of work, with a delicate, beautiful head of Gwen a small masterpiece.
Gwen lived most of her later life in a small studio in the garden of her Paris home, with her cats. She fed her cats well, but ate very little herself, dying of starvation in Dieppe in September 1939, she was 63.