- Sir William Rothenstein 1872–1945
- Chalk, pastel and bronze paint on paper
- Support: 1295 × 508 mm
- Bequeathed by Sir John Rothenstein 1992, accessioned 1997
Rothenstein was one of the principal artistic links between the younger, avant-garde artists in London and Paris in the 1890s, and this is his most important surviving work from that period. He was a member of a circle which included the British artists Charles Conder and Arthur Studd, and the French artists Toulouse-Lautrec and Lucien Pissarro. In 1892, Toulouse-Lautrec persuaded the dealer Père Thomas, who specialised in Impressionist paintings, to put on a show of works by Rothenstein and Conder at 13 rue Malesherbes. This drawing was included in the exhibition, where it attracted some press attention and was admired by Whistler and Degas, who sent word that Rothenstein should call on him. At the exhibition, Rothenstein was introduced to Camille Pissarro by Camille's son, Lucien.
This picture shows the strong influence of Puvis de Chavannes' paintings of the poor, which were admired in England as well as in Paris. The model in this picture brought Rothenstein two paintings by Puvis which she wanted to sell, but Rothenstein's allowance did not cover their cost, and so Studd bought them. Rothenstein wrote that 'In appearance this model recalled a phrase of Henry James': "The wanton was not without a certain cadaverous beauty." I made many pastel drawings of her' (Rothenstein, I, p.100). The gold painted background of this drawing is unusual. Rothenstein's interpretation of Puvis's pictorial methods anticipates the mood of Picasso's blue period (by coincidence, Rothenstein and Conder were then sharing a studio in the rue Ravignan in Montmartre, where Picasso later had his studio).
Rothenstein dedicated this painting to Studd. He decorated the inscription and the poem with a spiral monogram, a device he seems not to have used again. The verse inscribed at the bottom right is a quotation of Robert Browning's poem of the same title (Rothenstein substitutes 'cliff' for Browning's 'cape'):
Round the cliff on a sudden came the sea,The artist later used the first line of the poem as the title for a picture he made of the Vaucottes cliffs.
And the sun looked over the Mountain's rim:
And straight was a path of gold for him,
And the need of a world of men for me.
William Rothenstein, Men and Memories, I, London 1931, p.100
Robert Speaight, William Rothenstein: The Portrait of an Artist in his Time, London 1962, p.45
John House and Mary Anne Stevens (eds.), Post-Impressionism: Cross-Currents in European Painting, exhibition catalogue, Royal Academy, London 1979, pp.204-5, reproduced p.205
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Technique and condition
The drawing was executed on a thin smooth paper support, attached to a sheet of thick, off-white wove paper and backed with a canvas lining stretched over a wooden frame. It is likely that Rothenstein completed the drawing before any subsequent mounting onto the additional supports. There is no visible evidence of pin holes and one supposes that the secondary support was later added to provide some rigidity to what would have been a weak and vulnerable large piece of paper. It is probable that the paper would have undulated dramatically during painting and the additional paper support would assist in flattening the drawing. Evidence of the restrictive handling characteristics of this thin paper is apparent in the creases in the paper, formed during the execution of the drawing.
The figure was sketched out first with charcoal sticks and pastel crayons, then the background was painted in bronze paint. The brown paint used for the shadows was applied last and the numerous marks, drips and runs found throughout the background appear to be a combination of intent and accident, while creating a decorative contrast to the central figure drawing. The extent to which the bronze paint has tarnished is presently unknown, particularly where there are additions of brown paint. Certain areas have been retouched with bronze powder, or possibly gold paint, most noticeable over the area of extensive structural damage along the left hand edge.
The process of attaching the paper supports to the stretched canvas may have been carried out after completion of the drawing and possibly by a picture framer. This act is largely responsible for the present structural damage, such as the dramatic splits in the paper supports. Other damages include stab holes, various losses and water stains, which are less easy to explain, particularly as the picture has been glazed for a considerable time. An assessment of the drawing on acquisition proposes structural treatment to the support and frame to improve the picture's immediate environment.