Catalogue entry

T04851 From Night into Day 1975 Von der Nacht in den Tag

Oil and chalk or pastel on canvas 838 × 1166 (33 × 45 7/8)
Not inscribed
Purchased from the artist (Grant-in-Aid) 1986
Exh: Marie-Louise von Motesiczky: Paintings Vienna 1925–London 1985, Goethe-Institut, Nov.–Dec. 1985 (62, repr. p.51 in col.); Marie-Louise von Motesiczky, Österreichische Galerie Oberes Belvedere, Vienna, Feb.–April 1994 (42, repr. in col.), City Art Galleries, Manchester, May–June 1994 (28, as ‘From the Night into Day’)

‘From Night into Day’ depicts the artist's mother, Henriette von Motesiczky, at the age of ninety-three. She is shown lying in bed in the Hampstead home, London, they shared and where the artist still lives. The title relates to the fact that von Motesiczky's mother found difficulty in falling asleep and often lay awake as night became day.

Henriette von Motesiczky (née von Lieben) was born in Vienna in 1882 and married Edmund von Motesiczky in 1902. She was related on her maternal side to the Todesco family, and she and her husband were from cultivated, affluent families. Henriette von Motesiczky never had a profession. Edmund von Motesiczky died when the artist was thirteen years old.

The artist's mother is shown lying down, supported by pillows and holding a broken mirror (still in the artist's possession). The object immediately behind her head is a pillow. In conversation with the compiler on 14 November 1990, von Motesiczky said that it is not meant to resemble a halo. On the bedside table are two bottles, a bowl and a lighted night light. A walking stick leans against the table. Above it is a wall-mounted bedside lamp. At the foot of the bed, an Italian greyhound is standing on its hind legs, with its front paws resting on the mother's legs.

Henrietta von Motesiczky did not sit for this portrait. It was painted in the artist's studio across the corridor from her mother's bedroom. The artist explained that she regularly went across the corridor to look at her model. Several important sittings took place in her mother's room, when she wished to capture precise, though fleeting expressions. Von Motesiczky gave the mouth as an example, explaining, ‘a young mouth is all right without movement. But an old mouth is almost impossible without movement’.

T04851 belongs to a series of eighteen portraits von Motesiczky made of her mother between the mid-1940s and her mother's death in 1978. In a letter to the compiler dated 27 November 1987, the artist said she believed that T04851 is ‘one of the very best from the series’. Von Motesiczky recalled wanting to paint ‘something a little joyous’ and wrote, ‘in that state of decay she [her mother] was charming’. Her mother ‘lost her hair very early - at fifty’. She is shown nearly bald in this and other portraits. The artist described her reasons for painting T04951:

My mother was 93 years old at the time I made this painting. Despite her advanced age, for me she looked charming. She was almost radiant each time I came into the room. I thought that if I could paint what I saw when she was in this decrepit state, without embellishment and concentrating on the genuine charm in her expression, then I would have done a great thing. The need I felt to be truthful led to some frightening insights, but I was hoping that the overall impression would convey something of the immediate joy and hope she would show when someone came near her.

Von Motesiczky recalled that by the mid-1970s her mother had become her favourite model. This was, the artist wrote, ‘mainly because of her personality. I felt it was worthwhile for me to capture and preserve this. I never came to feel that I had finished with the subject. Sometimes other people would give me a rather unsatisfactory reaction and I would be disappointed, but thought if I have not caught it this time, I'll do it better next time’. Von Motesiczky said that the bond between them was extremely close over a long period of time and explained that this provided her with ample opportunities to paint her mother, ‘in all forms - either with a story in mind or because of a gesture, listening to the radio, or when she was in the garden. Like the Chinese painter who painted the landscape then walked into it, I knew her back so well!’

Earlier portraits, ‘Reclining Woman with Pipe’, 1954 (repr. Goethe-Institut exh. cat., 1985, p.76, no.38) and ‘Henrietta von Motesiczky’, 1959 (repr. ibid., p.43, no.48 in col.) show her smoking a pipe. In the earlier picture she is also depicted reclining in bed. This reclining pose was adopted again in the allegorical painting ‘The Old Tale’, 1959 (repr. ibid., pp.40–1, no.46 in col.), which shows an old woman playing a harp at Henriette von Motesiczky's bedside, and ‘Mother with Baton’, 1977 (repr. ibid., p.88, no.66). The lamp at the top right of ‘Mother with Baton’ is the same one depicted in T04851.

Throughout von Motesiczky's career, portraits have formed a major part of her output. Richard Calvocoressi (ibid., p.63) wrote about the portraits of the artist's mother:

The series of portraits of her mother - sitting smoking her pipe, holding her beloved greyhound or lying in bed - testifies to their long and close relationship: she died when Marie-Louise was seventy-two. These paintings, undoubtedly her most sustained achievement, also record the inevitable slow decline from statuesque figure to the thin, pale apparition of ‘Mother with Baton’ (1977), painted a year before the latter's death. Those showing her mother in their Hampstead garden are more pastoral in mood: mother disappearing on sticks down the garden path in ‘The Way’ (1967), or driving her three-wheeled electric car in the whimsical ‘The Short Trip’ (1965).

The Italian greyhound in T04850 was called Vixie. It was the third greyhound owned by the von Motesiczkys; the others were called Maxie and Franzi. One or other of the three appear in a number of other portraits of Henriette von Motesiczky. These include ‘Portrait with Turban’, 1946 (repr. ibid., p.74, no.32), ‘The Old Tale’, 1959, (repr. ibid., pp.40–1, no.46 in col.), ‘Mother with a Straw’, 1962 (repr.ibid., p.46, no.52 in col.), and ‘Mother in Green Dressing Gown’, 1975 (repr. ibid., p.50, no.61 in col.). The dogs are depicted on their own in ‘Portrait of Franzi’, 1946 (repr. Vienna exh. cat., 1994, pl.26, in col.) and ‘Dog with Flowers’, 1965 (repr. Goethe-Institut exh. cat., 1985, p.46, no.55 in col.). Von Motesiczky's portrait of Miriam Rothschild, 1965 (repr. ibid., p.47, no.54, in col.) includes a dog and an owl.

Von Motesiczky could not recall any diary entries or letters referring to T04851 and did not make any preliminary sketches for the work. It is painted in thin washes of sombre colours, mainly greens, blues and browns, with yellow and white highlights around the face and bedside lamp. The thinness of the paint surface is typical for works of this period. There is some impasto in details and highlights. In a number of places, the pigment has been scraped off with the handle of the brush. Many areas are transparent and the texture of the canvas is visible in most of the painting. There are some traces of chalk or pastel, lower centre, under the mother's hand, and also at the top of the lamp, centre right.

The artist has approved this entry.

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