Mark Gertler

The Artist’s Brother Harry Holding an Apple


Not on display

Mark Gertler 1891–1939
Oil paint and tempera on wooden panel
Support: 510 × 350 mm
Framed: 750 × 592 × 82 mm
Bequeathed by Mr Edgar Astaire 2015


This painting depicts Mark Gertler’s elder brother Harry in a head and shoulders format, holding an apple in his right hand. The sitter’s body is turned to the left and his right shoulder is raised while his head is shown full-face and his eyes directly engage the viewer. He holds the apple lightly between his thumb and third finger as if showing it to the viewer or offering it to an unseen companion outside the picture plane. The work is painted in vibrant contrasting colours; the light blue of the background and deep blue of the sitter’s clothing contrast with the deep red of his lips and the warm orange and red tones of the apple. The work was begun in tempera on panel and completed in oil paint. Gertler’s interest in tempera as a medium was shared by other artists in the early twentieth century who were interested in both the techniques and the formal simplifications of early Italian painters of the fourteenth century such as Giotto, then described as the ‘Italian primitives’; between 1910 and 1912 Gertler was a member of the short-lived group the ‘Neo-primitives’, together with fellow Slade students C.R.W. Nevinson, Edward Wadsworth, Adrian Allison and John Currie. These early Italian influences are also seen in the plain blue background of The Artist’s Brother Harry Holding an Apple. Gertler experimented with tempera and ‘neo-primitive’ composition and colour in other portraits of this period, such as Portrait of a Girl Wearing a Blue Jersey 1912 (formerly Edgar Astaire Collection). Interviewed in the Jewish Chronicle in 1912, Gertler expressed his admiration for the work of Piero della Francesca and Giovanni Bellini and stated that, ‘One should never forget the primary function of art – the music and rhythm of colour. Characterisation and psychology, all important in the novel, are quite of secondary importance in the picture’ (quoted in ‘A Triumph of Education Aid’, Jewish Chronicle, 9 February 1912, p.22). In this portrait of his brother, the sitter’s deliberately theatrical, non-naturalistic pose and the vibrant opposing colours in the work both reflect these ideas.

Gertler was also influenced by contemporary art and admired the work of Augustus John (1878–1961). John’s portrait studies on panel of his family of around 1909–11 encouraged Gertler to abandon his formerly low-toned palette for brighter colour and, from 1912, adopt a more fluid handling of paint in works such as Portrait of a Girl 1912 (Tate N03807). By the time he painted The Artist’s Brother Harry Holding an Apple in 1913, he had also absorbed the work of post-impressionist artists and in later life he recalled the impact of Cézanne, Gauguin and Matisse on his work of this period (see Studio, vol.104, 1932, p.163, quoted in MacDougall 2012, p.9). In a series of portraits made between 1913 and 1914 he intensified his palette further, using bright, contrasting primary colours and simplified the facial features and bodies of his sitters into a series of angular planes and forms. This is most clearly seen in this portrait in the triangular forms of the sitter’s eyebrows, hairline and neckline and the straight line of his neck from shoulder to ear.

The Artist’s Brother Harry Holding an Apple is closely related to Gertler’s painting Family Group 1913 (Southampton City Art Gallery), where Harry is shown in the same pose holding an apple, but full-length and accompanied by his wife who is wearing a red dress and peasant headscarf and holding their child. Between 1913 and 1914 Gertler made a series of portraits of his family in peasant dress that drew on folk art traditions, including Jewish Family 1913 (Tate N06231). Critics recognised the conscious archaism in Gertler’s treatment of the figure and when Jewish Family was exhibited in 1914 the seated figure of the old man, whose facial features are simplified in a similar manner to those in this portrait, was described by one newspaper critic as ‘as monstrously grotesque as a gargoyle or some of the figures in medieval woodcarvings’ (Star, 20 May 1914, quoted in Juliet Steyn, ‘Mythical Edges of Assimilation: An Essay on the Early Works of Mark Gertler’, in Camden Arts Centre 1992, pp.17–18). While the use of family members as models was partly a practical step to save money, this group of works can also be seen as a way for Gertler to explore the tension between his Jewish identity and his place in the avant-garde art world. Although it is possible to interpret Gertler’s new use of primitivist source material such as folk art as a search for a more ‘authentic’ visual language with which to depict everyday Jewish subject matter, primitivism was also a primary source of inspiration for post-impressionist artists and modernist groupings in London such as the Bloomsbury Group. Thus Gertler’s use of this idiom also indicates a visual sophistication in his work and explicitly aligns him with developments in avant-garde British art, despite the ambivalence to modernism’s competing factions expressed in his letters of this period (for example, Gertler to Dora Carrington, 29 September 1912, quoted by Juliet Steyn in Camden Arts Centre 1992, pp.10–11).

The significance of the apple in this portrait and in Family Group is not clear, but in 1912 Gertler was working on an Adam and Eve composition (location unknown) and the figure of Harry may have been adapted from this work. Apples figured regularly in Gertler’s work of this period, from still life paintings such as Apples 1914 (private collection) to the figure composition The Fruit Sorters 1914 (Leicester City Art Gallery).

Harry Gertler was almost a decade older than his brother Mark, and provided financial support for much of the painter’s career. He worked with their parents Louis and Golda in the family fur business, which was carried out from their house in Spital Square in London’s East End. Harry and his wife Annie moved to nearby Elder Street in April 1912, where Gertler lodged with them until moving to Hampstead in 1915.

Further reading
Mark Gertler: The Early and the Late Years, exhibition catalogue, Ben Uri Art Gallery, London 1982, pp.8, 12, 22.
Mark Gertler: Paintings and Drawings, exhibition catalogue, Camden Arts Centre, London 1992, p.72.
Sarah MacDougall, Mark Gertler: Works 1912–1928, exhibition catalogue, Piano Nobile, London 2012, pp.20–3.

Emma Chambers
January 2015

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