British novelist and poet Roe (The Spitfire Factory, not reviewed, etc.) pens a well-tempered, bracing biography of the painter too often trivialized as Augustus John's sister or Auguste Rodin's lover.
Working from letters in the Musée Rodin, the Tate Archives, the New York Library, and private collections, Roe takes John (1876–1939) out of the shadows into which, it begins to seem, she has been willfully put by others. Far from being the wimpy recluse of art-history tradition, John was an important, respected, and active member of the art community in Paris during a particularly vibrant era. Emotionally, she was vulnerable: her broken affair with Rodin threw her sideways for some time, she tended to confuse “devotional love with emotional yearning,” and she displayed a “chronic need for approval of her work.” But artistically and socially she was fulfilled: her work was admired by contemporaries (including her brother); neighbors and friends included poet Rainer Maria Rilke, critic Arthur Symons, and Irish nationalist Maud Gonne. Roe builds a supple and rolling narrative from the correspondence, striving for accuracy in presentation and keeping the speculation to a minimum as she tracks John through her years in France and numerous close friendships. The author also does a smart, unadorned job of following John's evolution as a painter, from her animated early works, with their interiorist tones, to the later oblique paintings, with their misshapen subjects. A very recognizable and human picture of John emerges as a searcher for faith and love quite like Roe's description of one of her letters: “portentous, eerie, with a sustained mood of beauty in strangeness.”
An impressive portrait of a “busy, daring, and eventful life,” profoundly independent and intellectual, though also melancholic.