T03185 REMBRANDT IN HEAVEN c.1948–58
Inscribed ‘GOTLIB/1961–1964’ bottom left
Oil on canvas, 52 7/8 × 64 1/32 (133.5 × 163.2)
Purchased from Mrs Janet B. Gotlib (Grant-in-Aid) 1980
Exh: Henryk Gotlib 1890–1966: Paintings and Drawings, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, July–August 1970 (15); Southampton Art Gallery, September 1970 (15); National Museum of Wales, Cardiff, October–November 1970 (15); Henryk Gotlib 1890–1966, Museum Narodowe, Warsaw, January–February 1980 (oils 31, repr.)
Mrs Gotlib recalls that her husband began this painting about 1948 or 1949 at a time when he thought he might be gravelly ill. In the end, however, after seeing many specialists, it was decided that there was nothing seriously wrong with him. ‘Henryk always liked to joke, and he liked to say that he was going to die and wanted to pay homage to Rembrandt before doing so. He always said it with a twinkle in his eyes and perhaps he was explaining or excusing the apparent strangeness of the picture. He sometimes called the painting “Homage to Rembrandt” ...
'When we first married, Henryk used to talk to me about the painters he most admired: Rembrandt, -and Titian, El Greco, Vermeer van Delft, Giotto, Piero della Francesca and Cezanne... I remember how moved he was when he described to me Rembrandt's painting “Saul and David”, how Saul wipes away a tear from his eyes with the corner of a curtain. I have sketches here of hands from some of Rembrandt's paintings at the National Gallery. There is also a sketch of Lucretia, which we saw together in Amsterdam. And there are sketches which, I think, must be of some of Rembrandt's larger compositions. I think so, at any rate. They are very interesting. In January 1964, he wrote to John Nowell: “Altogether I do not learn more from anybody, except Rembrandt”.’
The figure of Christ was based on traditional Polish folk sculptures, carved in wood and polychromed, of ‘The Man of Sorrows’. ‘You will notice that in the painting Christ is supporting his head with his left hand. In the carvings, it is the right hand which does this. I suppose it fitted the composition better for Christ to be supporting his head with his left hand. Painter's licence. The Madonna with the black face is inspired by the black faced Madonna of Czestochowa, a place of pilgrimage in Poland. I posed for both the angels and for the Madonna, whilst Henryk himself posed for the figure of Christ, using a large mirror which was in the studio.’
The painting was worked on over a period of about ten years, from about 1948 to 1958, and the date 1961–4 inscribed on it is incorrect. Mrs Gotlib thinks that the inscription must have been added a couple of months before his death, at a time when a friend was systematically photographing the paintings and making a catalogue of them, and Gotlib was already becoming rather weak. ‘Perhaps he was a little confused, with so much going on in his usually quiet studio: pictures being brought out, measured, photographed, dated and given a title ... I was not present, as I was working, but had I been there I should have immediately spotted it.’ (Letter of 26 July 1982).
The Tate Gallery 1980-82: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1984