Gwen John’s Watercolors on Exhibit in Firestone Library

A group of recently rediscovered watercolors by British painter Gwen John (1876–1939) are on exhibit in the Eighteenth-Century Window of Firestone Library from November 21 through December 31. Thanks to new research by Professor Anna Gruetzner Robins, University of Reading (UK), two albums containing 23 unsigned watercolors have been identified as the work of  Gwen John. The albums are in the extensive papers of the British poet and critic Arthur Symons (1865–1945), preserved in the Manuscripts Division, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library. Gwen John was the sister of British artist Augustus John (1878–1961) and the one-time lover and model of French sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840–1917). She is now recognized as one of the most important painters of her generation. Made during the artist’s productive years, beginning in 1917, many of the watercolors depict nuns, women parishioners, and orphaned girls in the Catholic church at Meudon, the Paris suburb where Gwen John lived for nearly 30 years. Almost all of these subjects are viewed from the back. Other watercolors in the album portray a woman in a train carriage, a woman wearing a striking boa, and a black cat in a window. A few of the watercolors have pencil sketches on the reverse. Gwen John gave the albums to Symons in June 1920. Both were natives of Pembrokeshire, in South Wales.

In an article just published in the Princeton University Library Chronicle, Professor Robins shows the relationship of the Princeton albums to two albums once belonging to the New York attorney and art collector John Quinn (1870–1924) and to works in British institutions. Robins notes, “Symons and John belonged to interconnecting networks that brought artists, writers, actors, gallery owners, and collectors together in the increasingly international world of Paris, London, and New York….Gwen John’s oil painting has undergone a major reassessment in recent years. The discovery of the two Symons albums makes a considerable contribution to an understanding of her greatness.” The American painter and art collector A. E. Gallatin (1881–1952) acquired the papers and albums from the widow of Arthur Symons and donated them to the Princeton University Library in 1951.

For more information, please contact Don C. Skemer, Curator of Manuscripts, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, at

Gwen John, untitled watercolor. Manuscripts Division, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library. Not to be reproduced without the permission of the Princeton University Library.