Sir William Rothenstein
The Doll’s House 1899–1900

Artwork details

The Doll’s House
Date 1899–1900
Medium Oil paint on canvas
Dimensions Support: 889 x 610 mm
frame: 1092 x 819 x 74 mm
Acquisition Presented by C.L. Rutherston 1917
On display at Tate Britain
Room: 1900


The Doll's House was painted at Vattetot, near Etretat in Normandy, where Rothenstein stayed between June and October 1899. After apparently being shown in London that year, it was, according to Rothenstein's notebook for 1900, finished at Kensington in January 1900. It won a silver medal at the 1900 Paris Exhibition.

The artist Augustus John and Rothenstein's wife Alice Knewstub (the actress Alice Kingsley) posed for the picture. After their marriage in 1899, the Rothensteins honeymooned in Vattetot, where they rented a cottage. They were shortly joined there by Charles Conder, William Orpen, John, and Rothenstein's younger brother Albert, who stayed at the local inn. The painting was posed on the staircase of the couple's cottage. John is wearing a coat and a pair of corduroy peg-top trousers which were made for him at the nearby fishing town of Yport, by a tailor who made suits for sailors. John's biographer, Michael Holroyd, writes that every morning the group rose at half past seven, drank a cup of chocolate and worked until eleven ( Rothenstein on The Doll's House and John on landscape drawings (Augustus John: A Biography, I, London 1974, p.92).

The painting's title refers to Ibsen's 1879 play A Doll's House, which had its first London performance in 1889. Rothenstein recalls in Men and Memories, 'We were all mesmerised by Ibsen in those days' (Rothenstein, I, p.210). He got to know of Ibsen's work through Conder, and he was later introduced by George Bernard Shaw to the actress Janet Achurch, whose performance as Nora he admired. The painting depicts the climax of the drama in Act III, during a dance at the Helmers' house, with John as Krogstad and Alice as Mrs Linde. The latter, a widowed friend of Nora's, has called Krogstad to the house to retrieve a letter he wrote exposing Nora, which will be found by Helmer at the end of the dance. As the two, who had been in love many years before, listen for the dance to end, Mrs Linde struggles with the decision to expose Nora's deception and the hypocrisy of the Helmers' marriage.

Augustus John amusingly parodied the subject as if it were a typical Victorian painting that referred to him and to Alice as people and not as characters in the play:

This is a regular problem picture. I am portrayed standing at the foot of a staircase upon which Alice has unaccountably seated herself. I appear to be ready for the road, for I am carrying a mackintosh on my arm and am shod and hatted. But Alice seems to hesitate. Can she have changed her mind at the last moment? But what could have been her intention? Perhaps the weather had changed for the worse and made a promenade inadvisable: but we shall never know. The picture will remain a perpetual enigma, to disturb, fascinate or repel ... [it points to] Rothenstein's essential romanticism and his penchant for the dramatic.
(William Rothenstein Memorial Exhibition, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1950, p.5)
To Rothenstein's biographer Robert Speaight, the painting 'suggests an anecdote and conceals a mystery ... It was a strange picture to have come out of a honeymoon summer ... this man and this woman, though they are so nearly touching, are each alone in the prison of their own thoughts' (Speaight, p.134).

The painting was presented to the Tate Gallery by the artist's brother Charles Rutherston in 1924.

Further reading:
William Rothenstein, Men and Memories, I, London 1931, pp.56, 210, 349, 367, reproduced facing p.346
Robert Speaight, William Rothenstein: The Portrait of an Artist in his Time, London 1962, pp.133-4, 145, 325, reproduced facing p.49

Terry Riggs
January 1998