A gifted young artist, William Rothenstein enrolled at London’s Slade School of Art in 1888 at the age of sixteen. In the summer of 1889 he became acquainted with a painter some ten years his senior, Solomon Joseph Solomon, who was also of Jewish descent. Solomon argued that Rothenstein needed to move beyond the Slade and study art in Paris instead. A prominent artist who had exhibited at both the Royal Academy, London, and the Paris Salon, and who had been a founding member of the New English Art Club in 1886, Solomon wrote persuasively to Rothenstein’s father Moritz, who consented to his son’s talent being nurtured in the French capital.1Robert Speaight, William Rothenstein. The Portrait of an Artist in His Time, Eyre & Spottiswoode, London, 1962, p. 22.
In 1890 the eighteen-year-old Rothenstein relocated to Paris and enrolled in the city’s most renowned progressive art school, the Académie Julian, which he recalled as ‘a congeries of studios crowded with students … from all over the world’.2William Rothenstein, Men and Memories. Recollections of William Rothenstein 1872–1900, Faber & Faber, London, 1931, pp. 36, 38. Rothenstein at first settled into a hotel on the Left Bank that was frequented by British and American art students. In his second year in Paris, however, he met a fellow student at Julian’s who was to broaden his horizons enormously. Rothenstein described this meeting evocatively in his autobiographical memoir Men and Memories (1931):
In October I returned to Paris. At Julian’s during my first day some students were looking over a brown-paper sketch book I had filled during the summer. They were joined by a blond, rather heavily-built man, blue-eyed, bearded, with long hair parted in the middle and falling over his eyes. Later he came up to me and said kind things about the drawings. He spoke with a soft voice, and walked with a peculiar, rather shuffling gait. There was something oddly attractive about him … He was an Englishman, he said, but had been sent out as a youth to Australia, where at first he had led an adventurous life in the Bush as a surveyor; later he had done drawings for newspapers, and finally he had become a painter. His name was Charles Conder. I felt a little shy with him; he knew so much more of the world than I did, or, I thought, than did my friends. We continued to meet at Julian’s. He was living in Montmartre, a part of Paris then unknown to me. He took me to see his work, pale panels of flowers, and blonde Australian landscapes; a little weak and faded in colour, I thought, but with a delicate charm of their own … Whistler, he said, was his favourite painter, and with him Puvis de Chavannes.3 ibid. p. 55.
Conder’s studio was located at 13 rue de Ravignan, ‘halfway up the hill on the way to Le Moulin de la Galette’ in Montmartre, ‘the artistic and entertainment centre of Paris’ with the Rat Mort and Le Chat Noir cabarets also close by.4Ann Galbally, ‘Charles Conder: a fin-de-siècle enigma’, in Ann Galbally & Barry Pierce, Charles Conder, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2003, p. 51. Conder now invited Rothenstein to share the studio with him, and the younger artist moved from the Left Bank to the rue de Ravignan, where he was soon swept up in Conder’s adventurous lifestyle that included regular alcohol-fuelled evenings with the bohemian artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec at the Moulin Rouge.
Rothenstein was not as carefree as Conder, however, and he later admitted that as ‘Conder’s personality proved very attractive to ladies; I found myself often in the way; there were difficulties which led to quarrels, soon mended but often repeated’.5Rothenstein, W., p. 57. Rescue for this awkward situation came in the form of Phil May, a British artist who had just arrived from a sojourn in Australia (where he had known Conder), and who proposed that Rothenstein share another studio with himself, also in the rue de Ravignan. According to Rothenstein’s son John, this new arrangement cemented the bond between the artists:
The few yards that separated Conder from Rothenstein strengthened their friendship. Able now conveniently to part, as well as to meet, at will, they came to take an increasing pleasure in each other’s company, until there grew up between them the most lasting and intimate friendship of Conder’s life.6John Rothenstein, The Life and Death of Conder, Dent, London, 1938, p. 56.
The relationship between the two artists was certainly close at this time, with Conder closing letters to Rothenstein with the endearments ‘love’ and ‘with love’.7Letters from Conder to Rothenstein, 11 Feb. 1892 and 23 Feb. 1892; cited in John Rothenstein, pp. 77–8. In March or April 1892 Rothenstein and Conder exhibited together at Père Thomas’s gallery in the Boulevard Malherbes, run by Georges Thomas who had been introduced to the two English artists by Toulouse-Lautrec.8There is some discrepancy in the literature about the date of this exhibition. John Rothenstein dated it to March 1891 (p. 72). Whereas Frank Gibson, Galbally & Pierce and Robert Speaight date it to 1892. Frank Gibson, Charles Conder. His Life and Work, John Lane, London, 1914, p. 35 (March 1892); Galbally & Pierce, p. 199 (March 1892); Speaight, 1962, p. 46 (April 1892).
In this year Rothenstein painted a majestic portrait of Conder in his studio (The Painter Charles Conder, 1892, Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio), dressed for an evening on the town, which he showed at the Salon du Champ de Mars. He also painted ‘a self-portrait, acquired, with a number of other canvases, by Conder’s friend, de Vallombreuse, when [he] came to leave Paris [later in 1892]’.9Rothenstein, W., p. 121. This was Henri de Vallombreuse, a painter and ceramicist who, like Conder and Rothenstein, had also studied painting at the Académie Julian. When Conder fell ill in December 1891, he convalesced at de Vallombreuse’s estate near Mustapha in Algiers.
Charles Conder, c. 1891–1892, is not as accomplished a work as the great Toledo portrait by Rothenstein, and so might pre-date that portrait. It is, however, a delightful and intimate friendship portrait, and its private nature might well have appealed to de Vallombreuse, himself a friend of both painter and sitter. NGV curator Brian Finemore, who recommended this work for the Gallery’s acquisition, felt that in Charles Conder ‘the compositional debt to “Japonisme” is a tribute to Conder’s later decorative style and the evocative misty landscape setting to the romanticism of his work’.10Brian Finemore, Freedom from Prejudice, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1977, p. 48.
When this painting was acquired by the Gallery from Sydney’s Clune Gallery in 1967, it was noted that its provenance was the Henri de Vallombreuse collection. While there is no direct documentation for this, it seems likely that it was one of the works purchased from Rothenstein by de Vallombreuse in 1892.
Ted Gott, Senior Curator, International Art, National Gallery of Victoria
Robert Speaight, William Rothenstein. The Portrait of an Artist in His Time, Eyre & Spottiswoode, London, 1962, p. 22.
William Rothenstein, Men and Memories. Recollections of William Rothenstein 1872–1900, Faber & Faber, London, 1931, pp. 36, 38.
ibid. p. 55.
Ann Galbally, ‘Charles Conder: a fin-de-siècle enigma’, in Ann Galbally & Barry Pierce, Charles Conder, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2003, p. 51.
Rothenstein, W., p. 57.
John Rothenstein, The Life and Death of Conder, Dent, London, 1938, p. 56.
Letters from Conder to Rothenstein, 11 Feb. 1892 and 23 Feb. 1892; cited in John Rothenstein, pp. 77–8.
There is some discrepancy in the literature about the date of this exhibition. John Rothenstein dated it to March 1891 (p. 72). Whereas Frank Gibson, Galbally & Pierce and Robert Speaight date it to 1892. Frank Gibson, Charles Conder. His Life and Work, John Lane, London, 1914, p. 35 (March 1892); Galbally & Pierce, p. 199 (March 1892); Speaight, 1962, p. 46 (April 1892).
Rothenstein, W., p. 121.
Brian Finemore, Freedom from Prejudice, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1977, p. 48.