Sir William Rothenstein
Mother and Child 1903

Artwork details

Mother and Child
Date 1903
Medium Oil paint on canvas
Dimensions Support: 969 x 765 mm
frame: 1270 x 1025 x 90 mm
Acquisition Purchased 1988
Not on display


The painting shows the artist's wife Alice with their infant son John in the first-floor sitting room of their house at 26 Church Row, Hampstead. Rothenstein married Alice Knewstub (the actress Alice Kingsley) in 1899. The couple first lived at Edwardes Square, Kensington before moving to the larger house at Hampstead in November 1902. The baby Alice was then expecting died immediately after birth, in December. John, their first child, had been born on 11 July 1901, and was therefore about age two at the time of this portrait. Their second surviving child, Rachel, born in December 1903, was probably expected at the time this painting was made.

Rothenstein's depiction of detail was accurate, and the Queen Anne interior of the house remains virtually unchanged today, apart from a built-in bookcase. Two paintings are displayed in the interior: the oil sketch on the mantelpiece is probably a copy by Rothenstein of a detail of an unknown old master painting; the small framed pastel on the wall is another portrait by Rothenstein himself of his wife and son (Mother and Child, City Art Gallery, Manchester, exhibited New English Art Club, 1902). Alterations made to the painting by the artist are faintly visible. There was once a stool or similar object at the left of the fender; the curtains at right were added later; and part of the carpet area was once red, although this may have been for a different picture.

Rothenstein was well known at beginning of the century as a landscape and portrait painter. A double portrait of his wife and her sister, The Browning Readers (1900, Bradford City Art Gallery), was the first of several portraits in which the interior is as important as the figure. All depict his own family or close friends, and show his own rooms. He later described the group of pictures as if a series: 'For some time now I was occupied with 'interiors'; my wife figures in many of these ... and, like most artists with their first child, I made countless studies of babes, and of mother and babe' (Rothenstein, II, p.26). He first painted his wife and son in 1901 (Mother and Child, private collection), and subsequently made various pastels and paintings of the mother and child theme until at least 1909. In several of these paintings Alice wears the same (or very similar) black skirt and jacket as in the Tate's Mother and Child. Rothenstein's detailed interest in the subject of figures in interiors is suggested by the following listing in his record book of his pictures (copy in Tate Gallery catalogue file): 'Interior of drawing room. Alice at window, Gainsborough drawings on wall, open piano. Commenced November 1900, finished April 1901'. The five months he spent on this painting was a considerable amount of time for such a subject. The painting mentioned was bought for £70, less 10%, by Professor Fred Brown of the Slade School of Art, and is now in a private collection.

It is likely that Rothenstein made a study in pastels for this portrait, since this was then his usual practice. There are two etchings of Alice holding a slightly younger John in a similar pose (exhibited William Rothenstein, Max Rutherston Gallery, London 1990, nos.74-5). Possibly these were not intended as direct studies for the painting, but may nevertheless be the origin of the pose in profile.

Contemporary critics, referring to this picture, made mention of its composition, colour, handling and detail. Several critics compared the painting to Dutch seventeenth-century interiors, mentioning Vermeer and De Hoogh. Interest in Dutch painting became a fashion at the New English Art Club, of which Rothenstein was a member.

The carved and gilt frame, dating to about 1700, would probably not have been affordable by the artist in 1903, and was most likely acquired for the painting by Edgar Hesslein, Rothenstein's brother-in-law, who bought the painting from Rothenstein for £175 in 1903.

John Rothenstein grew up to be an art historian and was Director of the Tate Gallery from 1938 to 1964. Knighted in 1952, he died on 27 February 1992. He is also represented in two other portraits by his father in the Tate Gallery, The Princess Badroulbadour, 1908 (Tate Gallery N03953), depicting him as a child with his two younger sisters, and a 1938 oil, Portrait of Sir John Rothenstein C.B.E. (Tate Gallery T01869).

Further reading:
William Rothenstein, Men and Memories, II, London 1932, pp.26, 28, 32
Robert Speaight, William Rothenstein: The Portrait of an Artist in his Time, London 1962, p.157

Terry Riggs
January 1998