Catalogue entry

T05075 Mother and Child 1903


Oil on canvas 969 × 765 (38 1/8 × 30 1/8)

Inscribed ‘W.R = 1903’ b.r.
Purchased (Grant-in-Aid) 1988

Prov: The artist, from whom bt for £175 by his brother-in-law Edgar Hesslein 1903; his widow, Mrs Emily Hesslein (1868–1961), the artist's sister, by 1950; bequeathed by her to the artist's son, Sir John Rothenstein, 1961, from whom bt by the Tate Gallery
Exh: New English Art Club, Dudley Gallery, Nov.–Dec. 1903 (61); Paintings by Contemporary English and French Painters, Brooklyn Museum, New York, Nov. 1922–Jan. 1923 (81); Sir William Rothenstein, a Memorial Exhibition, Tate Gallery, May–June 1950 (29, repr.); Sir William Rothenstein, City Museum and Art Gallery, Gloucester, Nov. 1965–Jan. 1966 (9); Sir William Rothenstein 1872–1945, A Centenary Exhibition, Bradford City Art Gallery and Museums, March–April 1972 (12, repr.); New English Art Club Centenary Exhibition, Christie's, Aug.–Sept. 1986 (85); The Edwardian Era, Barbican Art Gallery, Nov. 1987–Feb. 1988 (not in cat.)
Lit: ‘The New English Art Club at the Dudley Gallery’, Daily News, 16 Nov. 1903; ‘New English Art Club’, Telegraph, 17 Nov. 1903; ‘New English Art Club’, Daily Chronicle, 19 Nov. 1903; ‘New English Art Club’, Building News, 20 Nov. 1903; ‘New English Artists’, Outlook, 21 Nov.1903; ‘Fine Arts: The New English Art Club’, Athenaeum, no.3969, 21 Nov. 1903; ‘B.N.’, ‘New English Art Club’, Westminster Gazette, 21 Nov. 1903; ‘New English Art Club. To the Editor of the Daily Chronicle’, Daily Chronicle, 24 Nov. 1903; ‘The Drawing Room. Fine Art: The New English Art Club’, Bazaar and Exchange and Mart, 25 Nov. 1903; ‘English and French Paintings of Today. Opinions of the Press’, Brooklyn Museum Quarterly, vol.10, 1923, p.14, repr.; William Rothenstein, Men and Memories, 1932, II, pp.26, 28, 32; Robert Speaight, William Rothenstein, 1962, p.157. Also repr: John Rothenstein, Summer's Lease, Autobiography 1901–1938, 1965, opp. p.37; Apollo, vol.91, March 1970, p.221

‘Mother and Child’ shows the artist's wife Alice with their elder son John in the first-floor sitting room of their house at 26 Church Row, Hampstead. He was their first child, born on 11 July 1901, and so was about the age of two when the portrait was painted. He grew up to become an art historian and was Director of the Tate Gallery from 1938 to 1964. He was knighted in 1952 and died on 27 February 1992. Some alterations that were made by the artist while he was working on the picture can be seen very faintly. There was once a stool, or something similar, at the left of the fender; the curtains at the right were added later; part of the area of the carpet was once red, although this may have been for a different picture.

William Rothenstein married Alice Knewstub (the actress Alice Kingsley) in 1899. They lived first at Edwardes Square in Kensington but moved to the larger house at Hampstead in November 1902. The baby that they were then expecting died immediately after birth in December. The Rothensteins' second surviving child, Rachel, was born in December 1903, and was probably already expected at the time of this painting.

Rothenstein was well known at the beginning of the century as a painter of landscape and portraits. His double portrait of his wife and her sister, titled ‘The Browning Readers’ (1900, Bradford City Art Gallery), began a series of portraits in which the interior is as important as the figure, and all of these are of his own family or close friends and show his own rooms. He first painted his wife and son in 1901 (‘Mother and Child’, private collection) and went on to make pastels and paintings of ‘mother and child’ until at least 1909. One of the first of these is listed in the artist's record book of sales in a way that suggests his interest in the setting, particularly in a list that otherwise only gives titles, and also the considerable length of time he spent in the painting: ‘Interior of drawing room, Alice at window, Gainsborough drawings on wall, open piano. Commenced November 1900, finished April 1901’ (from copy of artist's list in Tate Gallery catalogue file). The painting was bought for £70, less 10 per cent, by Professor Fred Brown of the Slade School, and is now in a private collection (repr. in col., Spring 1988, exh. cat., Fine Art Society 1988, p.35).

Rothenstein himself 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 1932, p.26). In several of these paintings Alice Rothenstein wears the same (or very similar) black skirt and jacket as in T05075:

1. ‘An Interior’, 1900–01 (private collection), oil on canvas 990 × 890 (39 × 35); the painting with the Gainsborough drawings, mentioned above.

2. ‘Alice by the Fireside’, 1901 (City Art Gallery, Manchester), oil on canvas 737 × 560 (29 × 22); Alice standing in front of three framed drawings.

3. ‘Mother and Child’, 1902 (private collection), oil on panel 311 × 260 (12 1/4 × 10 1/4); the painting of the pastel shown in the background of ‘Mother and Child’ (T 05075).

4. ‘Tears’, 1902 (private collection), oil on canvas 597 × 749 (23 1/2 × 29 1/2); Alice seated on a sofa, her head in her arms, with three framed paintings or drawings on the wall behind her.

It is likely that Rothenstein made a study in pastel for this portrait, since this was his usual practice. There are also two etchings of Alice Rothenstein holding a slightly younger John in a similar pose (exh. William Rothenstein, Max Rutherston 1990, nos.74–5). In both the two figures are in profile, as in the painting; in one the baby held upright on the knee and in the other at arm's length in the air. Both these in retrospect become studies for ‘Mother and Child’.

Rothenstein came to find the house at Hampstead a drawback as it was too attractive:

At first I was happy about the house, with its panelled rooms, carved staircase and noble Queen Anne fireplaces. But I came to feel its very beauty had a defect; it was all too perfect, too stylish; for I was aiming at something more elemental than a Queen Anne interior. I was painting wife and child, and wished to suggest every-wife and every-child; and Queen Anne got in the way, while for portraits the light was too diffused.

(Rothenstein 1932, p.32)

The interior of the house is now still the same (apart from a built-in bookcase), and shows that Rothenstein's detail is accurate. A few areas are simplified in the painting. The decorative relief on the frieze over the fireplace, only slightly noticeable in the painting, is in reality more prominent, particularly with that angle of light. The horizontal moulding on the fireplace shown in the painting in fact continues down both sides, and also under the top shelf. The volute of the fireplace behind the boy's head has been omitted in the painting.

There are two paintings displayed in the interior. The oil sketch on the mantelpiece is probably a copy by Rothenstein of a detail of an old master painting. The small framed pastel on the wall is by Rothenstein himself of his wife and son, and was exhibited at the New English Art Club in 1902 (‘Mother and Child’, pastel on paper, City Art Gallery, Manchester, no.1925.397).

The newspaper reviews listed at the beginning of this entry are selected as the more important of those gathered in the New English Art Club press-cutting book in the Tate Gallery Archive. There are so many of these that it is interesting to list together some of the topics taken up by the critics.

Composition:

‘this is certainly the most scholarly composition ... the straight lines... have an almost primitive austerity ... the placing of the figures... that accidental inevitability’

‘open to some criticism is the technical composition’

‘the flaw in this really charming composition is in the stiff, isolated line of the chair-leg’

Colour:

‘a little sudden and isolated too is the strong note of blue in the child's dress’

‘the faint green of the walls becomes sickly’

‘there might be a kink of colour blindness ... the extraordinarily coarse and sudden colour in the flesh’

‘the deliberate adjustment of tone

‘yellow in large quantities is one of the most difficult of all colours to manage’

‘a scheme of colour that does not strike us as particularly acceptable’

Handling:

‘awkward lines and heaviness of handling’

‘the texture and tone of the pigment ... still fails ... the matter of handling’

Detail:

‘standing well back to get the general effect to which all the details are subservient’

‘When the old Dutchmen painted subjects of this kind the charm was in the exquisiteness of the finish, the delicacy of the detail. But it is just this exquisiteness, just this delicacy, that appears to be beyond Mr Rothenstein's grasp’

Experiment:

‘on the whole, a successful experiment’

‘Mr Rothenstein's technique being experimental where the Dutchman's is scientific and methodical’

Several critics compared the painting to Dutch seventeenth-century interiors, mentioning Vermeer and De Hoogh. This interest in Dutch painting became a fashion at the New English Art Club, and was associated at the time with Whistler, as reported by the Pennells: ‘The ars celare artem of Terborgh and Vermeer always delighted him - the mysterious technique, the discreet distinction of execution, the “one skin all over it”, of the minor masters of Holland was one of his eloquent themes’ (E.R. and J. Pennell, The Life of James McNeill Whistler, revised ed., 1911, p.194).

Michael Rothenstein, the painter and younger son of William, recalls being told that when his father showed the painting to Roger Fry, Fry exclaimed ‘My God, Rothenstein, if only I could finish your pictures!’. The implication was that Fry admired, and perhaps envied, the invention of the subject, but thought that the application of paint was too controlled. This expresses the same criticism as the newspaper reviews about handling and detail.

Fry's comment was presumably made before 1910, since he then wrote a lengthy defence of Rothenstein's recent painting, admitting that earlier on he had ‘resented his ungainly impasto for many years’ (Roger Fry, ‘The Art of Mr Rothenstein’, Nation, 11 June 1910, pp.382–3). This article by Fry, a review of an exhibition at the Goupil Gallery, is defensive but closely argued, concluding that ‘the sacrifice of all that charm of rapid ... handling is justified by the imaginative effect produced ... we are so much moved by the expression of the enduring and resistant qualities of things, that we can forego the more immediate sensuous charms of fair pigment’. A similar mother and child painting was exhibited, and described (p.383) in terms that apply equally to the Tate Gallery's painting:

The methods by which Mr Rothenstein attains the necessary transposition of the values of everyday life are made clear in his domestic interiors. With chiaroscuro cut off, with shade translated more or less completely into colour contrasts, he is forced to construct the scaffolding of his design with extreme perfection. Upon this, ultimately, the whole weight of the expression must rest, and he is bound, therefore, to extract from the familiar forms just that in them which has most significance. He works mainly by simplification of the contour, so that the main directions and inclinations give the utmost idea of mass and resistance ...

... In almost all the ... genre pieces a very different note is struck to that with which we are familiar in contemporary genre; it is once more the sense of the dramatic intensity of common life that pervades the composition. He choses, naturally enough, the one most elemental and unchanging of all situations, the mother and child.

One has only to think of how rarely, in all the hundreds of Dutch genre pieces, the theme occurs in any prominence, to realise how different, how much more ambitious, Mr Rothenstein is than the Dutch masters.

John Rothenstein emphasises how different were the characters of his parents: ‘my father's gravity and my mother's frivolity and indiscretion’ (Rothenstein 1965, p.12). He wrote that ‘my father's austerity was expressed in a preference for straight-backed, uncushioned chairs and the like’ (p.13), a taste evident in this interior. This austerity is relieved by the group of mother and child, and his wife's relaxation is evidence of her own character.

The carved and gilt frame of the painting was made in about 1700. Since the artist could probably not have afforded it himself in 1903, and does not mention it in his list of paintings, it is likely that it was acquired for the picture by Edgar Hesslein.

Published in:
Tate Gallery: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986-88, London 1996