Sir William Rothenstein

Jews Mourning in a Synagogue


Not on display
Sir William Rothenstein 1872–1945
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1275 x 1155 mm
frame: 1602 x 1470 x 125 mm
Presented by Jacob Moser J.P. through the Trustees and Committee of the Whitechapel Art Gallery in commemoration of the 1906 Jewish Exhibition 1907


This is one of eight paintings of Jewish ritual which Rothenstein made over a two year period, following a visit to the Spitalfields Synagogue in Brick Lane, in London's East End. The artist describes in Men and Memories (II, pp.35-6) how he chanced to visit the Machzike Hadaas Synagogue. He was in the area on business with a solicitor, the brother of the painter Solomon J. Solomon, who urged him to visit the synagogue: 'a curious sight, he assured me, well worth seeing'. Rothenstein was excited by the unusual scene: 'Here were subjects Rembrandt would have painted - had indeed, painted - the like of which I never thought to have seen in London ... It was the time of the Russian Pogroms and my heart went out to these men of a despised race, from which I too had sprung, though regarded as a stranger among them'. Not permitted to draw in the synagogue, which would have been a violation of the Law, and 'determined not to waste a subject so precious', he took a room nearby in Spital Square and persuaded some of the men to sit for him. They were initially reluctant, as they feared he might sell the pictures to churches. The first of the paintings Rothenstein made was The Talmud School, 1904. In Jews Mourning in a Synagogue, Rothenstein has perhaps misunderstood the ritual, as Jews would not have been mourning in a synagogue, and the scene is posed in a studio, in any case.

Rothenstein's interest in the subject coincided with an emerging interest in Jewish art generally, fuelled partly by events in Russia and encouraged by the 1905 publication of L'Ornement hébraïque, a collection of illuminated pages from medieval manuscripts taken mostly from the Imperial Library, St Petersburg. In 1906 the Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, held an Exhibition of Jewish Art & Antiquities, where this picture was shown. It was presented to the Tate Gallery in 1907 by Jacob Moser, JP, in the name of the Jewish community and in commemoration of the exhibition.

Rothenstein also made many drawings on the theme, before tiring of the subject in 1907 and turning to domestic interiors. A drawing, Study for Jews Mourning in a Synagogue, 1906, is in the collection of the Bradford City Art Gallery.

Further reading:
William Rothenstein, Men and Memories, II, London 1932, pp.35-6, 99
Robert Speaight, William Rothenstein: The Portrait of an Artist in his Time, London 1962, pp.162-6

Terry Riggs
January 1998

Display caption

In his memoirs Rothenstein recalled how he had gone by chance into Spitalfields Synagogue, and was gripped by the scene of mourning Jews. He was not allowed to paint in the Synagogue itself, so took a room nearby and persuaded some of the men to sit for him. Some of the models have been used twice in the picture: the two standing men appear to be the same person. Rothenstein was himself Jewish, and painted several scenes of contemporary Jewish culture in the early years of the century. The picture was first shown at the NEAC 1906 summer exhibition. Afterwards it went on to the celebration of Jewish life in Britain held at the Whitechapel Art Gallery. The picture was presented to the Tate in 1907 by Jacob Moser to commemorate that exhibition.

Gallery label, April 1997

Catalogue entry


Not inscribed.
Canvas, 50×39 1/2 (127×100).
Presented by Jacob Moser, J.P., through the Trustees and Committee of the Whitechapel Art Gallery in commemoration of the 1906 Jewish Exhibition 1907.
Exh: N.E.A.C., June–July 1906 (119); Jewish Exhibition, Whitechapel Art Gallery, autumn 1906 (35).
Lit: The Jewish World, 13 July 1906; J.B. Manson, ‘The Paintings of Mr William Rothenstein’ in Studio, L, 1910, p.42; Wellington, 1923, p.27; Men and Memories, 11, 1932, pp.35–6, 99; Speaight, 1962, pp.162–6.
Repr: Studio, XL, 1907, p.225.

The artist describes (loc. cit.) how he chanced to visit the Spitalfields Synagogue and was excited by the unusual sight. Not permitted to paint there he took a room close by and persuaded some of the men to sit for him. In the following two years he painted eight pictures of Jewish subjects. The first of these was ‘The Talmud School’ 1904. Later he got some of the Jews to sit for him in Hampstead. By 1907 he grew tired of painting Jews and turned to domestic interiors. A drawing, ‘Early study for Jews Mourning in a Synagogue’, was exhibited at the Carfax Gallery, March 1907 (33). See also Beerbohm N04165.

Published in:
Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, London 1964, II

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