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Three years out of the Slade, Gertler’s work became increasingly experimental. This drawing, executed on the eve of the First World War, captures the tension between the traditional way of life depicted and the incipient warfare which threatens to overwhelm it. The concentrated, almost claustrophobic domestic interior with the scrubbed kitchen table and simple meal typify Jewish East End life of the period. The simplification of the figures and the still life objects seen from different viewpoints reflect Gertler’s awareness of Cézanne, while the treatment of the dresser and crockery shows the influence of Cubism. The presence of a grid (common Slade practice for squaring up the picture for transfer to canvas) indicates that Gertler planned a painting of the composition.
The focus of the work is the relationship between the man and wife – without the title, we would not know they are Rabbi and Rebbetzin – yoked together and anchored to their spartan surroundings. Their huge eyes increase their emotive appeal, while their enlarged hands, as in Gertler’s 'Portrait of the Artist’s Mother' (1913, Glynn Vivian, Swansea), indicate suffering and a life that has known hardship. The picture, as a contemporary reviewer noted, also evokes the wider history of the Jewish diaspora: ‘A man and a woman with all the history of an oppressed people behind them […] the incisive and unflinching design […] controlled without loss to their humanity’.
watercolour & pencil on paper
H 48.8 x W 37.6 cm
acquired by private treaty through Sotheby's with the assistance of the Art Fund, The National Lottery Heritage Fund, Victoria and Albert Museum Purchase Grant Fund, Pauline and Daniel Auerbach, Sir Michael and Lady Heller, Agnes and Edward Lee, Hannah and David Lewis, David Stern, Laura and Barry Townsley, Della and Fred Worms and anonymous donors, 2002
Drawing & watercolour
Mark Gertler 1914