Leon Kossoff

Woman Ill in Bed, Surrounded by Family


Not on display

Leon Kossoff 1926 – 2019
Oil paint on board
Support: 1854 × 1245 mm
frame: 1412 × 2025 × 65 mm
Purchased 1981

Display caption

'Woman Ill in Bed, Surrounded by Family' was painted at a time when there was illness in the artist's family. In common with all his work Kossoff worked on the painting in his studio, basing it on drawings made from life. However, it departs from Kossoff's usual practices in that the composition was based, not on preliminary sketches, but on an engraving of the Virgin in bed by Albrecht Durer. The sombre colours and great density of paint evoke vividly a sense of human suffering and the tragic nature of human existence, themes which are at the heart of Kossoff's work.

Gallery label, September 2004

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Catalogue entry


Not inscribed
Oil on hardboard, 73 × 49 × 2 (185.5 × 124.5 × 5)
Purchased from Fischer Fine Art (Grant-in-Aid) 1981
Exh: Leon Kossoff, Marlborough Fine Art, April 1968 (12); Leon Kossoff: Paintings from a Decade 1970–1980, Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, May–July 1981, Graves Art Gallery, Sheffield, July–August 1981 (49, detail repr.)

'Woman Ill in Bed’ is unique in Kossoff's oeuvre in that it was not painted from drawings but made direct from the model. The people in the painting were all drawn from life (many of the studies no longer exist), but the composition was altered after he had seen an engraving of the Virgin in bed by Albrecht Dürer.

The painting was made at a time when both his wife and his brother's wife had been ill (the woman depicted may combine elements of them both). The children are his brother's son and his own. An earlier painting ‘Woman Ill in Bed’ of 1957 (now in the Chrysler Museum in Provincetown, Mass.) was made from drawings done in hospital.

Kossoff says that he was able to resolve a compositional problem he was having with the painting after he had seen the Dürer engraving, ‘which encouraged me to reconstruct the composition moving the bed from the corner of the room where it actually was to an imagined position in the centre of the room under the window enabling me to surround the woman rather than push everything into the corner.’ The window was the only element that remained in its original position. He considers that he was probably painting ‘something that was happening rather than something that was there’, and that this was reflected in his changed method of working. The illness in the family had created a number of emotional and practical strains and he had made several other versions of the subject which he later destroyed. He recalls that he ‘had been working for some time on a painting of a Passover supper. I also had some pictures going motivated by the Kennedy assassination which I destroyed because it became more URGENT to paint this picture and these other works were taking up too much room in the studio. I don't know how long the painting took - I think I did a few versions and painted the final one rather quickly.’

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1980-82: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1984

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