This is a fine example of William Rothenstein’s painting practice at a time when his art was achieving wide recognition in the English art world. In 1900, the year this work was painted, Rothenstein’s painting The doll’s house, 1889–1900 (Tate, London), won a silver medal at the Paris Exposition. Rothenstein’s work at this period was highly influenced by that of artist Edgar Degas, who had become a mentor to the English artist during his time in Paris in the preceding decade.
The artist’s parents, Moritz and Bertha Rothenstein, are shown here dressed formally and seated in an interior. The composition at first seems somewhat stern, reflecting perhaps their conservative Germanic background. In his autobiographical account Men and Memories (1931), Rothenstein captured the personalities of his parents with exquisite detail:
My mother’s character inclined to be strict … For her there was a right way and a wrong way of doing things, and she insisted, undisturbed by doubt, on things being done in the way she thought right … My father was milder and less determined; from him we would get more concessions; but his trust in my mother’s judgement was absolute; her word was law, and he consulted her on everything. I heard not only no cross word spoken between them but no impatient one. As my mother was the stronger character, she loved to dwell on my father’s just and generous nature; to her he was the perfect husband.1William Rothenstein, Men and Memories. Recollections of William Rothenstein 1872–1900, Faber & Faber, London, 1931, p. 6.
Rothenstein’s portrait of Moritz and Bertha captures both his mother’s strictness and his father’s softer nature. The seeming formality of the couple’s pose is softened by his father’s right hand, which reaches protectively around the shoulders of his beloved wife.
Moritz Rothenstein was born in 1836 in the village of Grohnde in Lower Saxony, where his family kept the local mill. In his youth he was apprenticed to a textile merchant in the town of Hildesheim, where his future wife Berthe Dux was born in 1844, the daughter of a banker. Berthe’s father was a pillar of the local Jewish community, and the Rothensteins were also of Jewish decent, thus enabling Moritz to court Berthe in his early twenties. The strong woollen trade that operated between Germany and Bradford in West Yorkshire, a global center for textile production, saw Moritz Rothenstein migrate to the United Kingdom in 1859, at the age of twenty-two. Berthe later joined him in Bradford, and the couple were married in 1865. Moritz Rothenstein became a naturalised British citizen in 1867 and five years later, in 1872, Berthe gave birth to the couple’s fifth child, William. Moritz Rothenstein was well read and liberal in outlook, eventually becoming a Unitarian, although his wife Marthe remained faithful to her Jewish heritage. Their son William was to become a convert to Christianity as a young teenager, while retaining ‘a general respect for the religious impulse and a general conviction that no one religious system was better than another’.2Robert Speaight, William Rothenstein. The Portrait of an Artist in His Time, Eyre & Spottiswoode, London, 1962, p. 6. Details of Moritz’s and Berthe Rothenstein’s life are also drawn from Speaight, pp. 1–5.
Ted Gott, Senior Curator, International Art, National Gallery of Victoria
William Rothenstein, Men and Memories. Recollections of William Rothenstein 1872–1900, Faber & Faber, London, 1931, p. 6.
Robert Speaight, William Rothenstein. The Portrait of an Artist in His Time, Eyre & Spottiswoode, London, 1962, p. 6. Details of Moritz’s and Berthe Rothenstein’s life are also drawn from Speaight, pp. 1–5.