Rabbi and Rabbitzin
Medium: Watercolour and pencil on paper
Dimensions: 48.8 x 37.6 cm
Inscription: Signed and dated t.r. 'Mark Gertler 1914'
Acquired in 2002 by private treaty through Sotheby's with the assistance of the Art Fund, HLF, V&A/MLA Purchase Grant Fund, Pauline and Daniel Auerbach, Morven and Michael Heller, Agnes and Edward Lee, Hannah and David Lewis, David Stern, Laura and Barry Townsley, Della and Fred Worms and anonymous donors
Executed on the eve of the First World War, Rabbi and Rabbitzin captures the tension between the traditional way of life depicted and the incipient violence of warfare, which threatens to overwhelm it. The concentrated, almost claustrophobic domestic interior with the scrubbed kitchen table and simple meal are typical of Jewish East End life of the period. The simplification of the figures and the still life objects seen from different viewpoints show Gertler’s awareness of Cézanne, and the treatment of the dresser and crockery shows the influence of Cubism. The presence of a grid (common Slade practice for squaring up the picture for transfer to canvas) indicates Gertler’s plan for a painting of the composition.
The focus of the work is the relationship between the man and wife yoked together and anchored in their spartan surroundings; their enlarged hands and eyes increase their emotive appeal. The picture also evokes the wider history of the Jewish diaspora as the Westminster Gazette noted: ‘A man and a woman with all the history of an oppressed people behind them’, commending ‘the incisive and unflinching design to which these human elements are controlled without loss to their humanity.’
Mark Gertler was born in Spitalfields, London to Austrian-Jewish immigrant parents in 1891; the family was repatriated to Przemysl in Galica the following year and lived on the brink of starvation until enabled to return to London’s East End in 1896. Aided by a loan from the Jewish Educational Aid Society, Gertler trained at the Slade School of Fine Art (1908-11), where he won a scholarship and many prizes. He was the first and youngest Jewish working-class student of his generation to do so and a number of the other ‘Whitechapel Boys’ soon followed in his footsteps.
Born: 1891 London, England
Died: 1939 London, England