In this intense and intimate work, executed in a remarkably realist style, Bomberg explores the theme of mourning. The subject was particularly resonant for him after the sudden death of his mother on 2 October 1912, at the age of only 48. Unswerving in her belief in David's talent, Rebecca Bomberg had been his fiercest champion, helping to provide his canvases and materials and enabling him to set up a studio next door to the family home in 20 Tenter Buildings, St Mark's Street, London. While the spartan, claustrophobic interior depicted here suggests something of the family's crowded Whitechapel lodgings, it also points to the inescapable desperation felt by Bomberg in the wake of his mother's death.
As in much of his early work, such as Vision of Ezekiel 1912 (Tate T01197) and Jewish Theatre 1913 (Leeds City Art Galleries), the influence of Bomberg's Jewish upbringing is evident. Inspired by the stylised Yiddish dramas performed at the Pavilion Theatre in London's East End, Bomberg imbues his figures with dramatic gestures, framing them within the doorway as if to locate them on a stage. The light on the table also evokes a specifically Jewish iconography, reminiscent of the 'yahrzeit' or memorial candle used to symbolise the soul of the dead. According to his stepdaughter, Bomberg always kept a version of this work on his easel and even identified the figure at the far right as himself. Yet despite the specificity of his experience, Bomberg's handling of his theme suggests a certain timelessness and universality. The dress and facial features are highly generalised, and betray Bomberg's wider interest in the formal simplification of the human figure. The differing postures - from the pensive figure at the end of the bed to the defiant central woman who stretches out her arm as if to deny death its final victory - form a panoply of human grief. The ambiguity of the figure on the bed also warns against a strictly biographical reading of the scene. Eyes open, arms extended and hands locked, the man seems at once to be the ailing family member in his final death-throes and the grieving relative invoking the heavens to restore his loved one. The painter Augustus John (1878-1961) even assumed that the figure on the bed had already died. Writing to the American collector John Quinn (1870-1924), he described the work as 'extremely good and dramatic, representing a man died with mourning family, very simplified and severe' (quoted in Cork 1987, p.38).
The fine draughtsmanship and explicit representation of this drawing locate it firmly within the years of Bomberg's study at the Slade School (1911-13), where he won the Henry Tonks prize in 1913 for his vivid realism. Yet Bomberg was at the same time exploring far less representational styles. In a number of other works from 1912-13 on the theme of Family Bereavement, at least three of which are almost identical in composition to this work, he starkly simplified his figures to the point of near abstraction, suggesting the sort of radical formal experimentation that would propel him to the centre of the British avant garde immediately before the First World War. While Bomberg was to suffer further losses, in particular the deaths during the war of his brother Emmanual (d. 1917) and his friend and patron T. E. Hulme (1883-1917), he never again gave visual form to his grief, responding instead through poetry.
Richard Cork, David Bomberg, New Haven and London 1987, pp.36-8 , reproduced p.37, pl.37
Richard Cork, David Bomberg, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1988, reproduced p.146, cat. no. 25