Ben Uri collection

Rabbi and Rabbitzin

Artist information

Name Mark Gertler (1891-1939)

Born London, England

Died London, England

Find more work in the collection by this artist

Mark Gertler was born in a slum lodging house in Spitalfields in 1891, the fifth and youngest child of Austrian-Jewish immigrant parents ‘trying their luck’ in London. Repatriated to their native Przemysl in Galicia the following year, the family lived on the brink of starvation after the departure of Gertler’s father, Louis, to search for work in America until they were reunited in London’s East End in 1896, less than a mile from where Mark had been born. Following an unhappy apprenticeship at Clayton and Bell stained-glass makers, and a brief training at the Regent School Polytechnic, Gertler entered the Slade School of Fine Art (1908–11), aided by a loan from the Jewish Education Aid Society – the first and youngest Jewish working-class student of his generation to do so. His spectacular progress – he twice won the Slade scholarship and left with another from the British Institution – encouraged further ‘Whitechapel Boys’ including David Bomberg, Jacob Kramer and Isaac Rosenberg to follow in his footsteps. He had five solo shows at the Goupil Gallery (1921–6) and was a leading member of the London Group, but tuberculosis, first diagnosed in 1920, confined him to sanatoria in 1925, 1929 and 1936. Despite five further shows at the Leicester Galleries (1932–9), Gertler became an increasingly isolated figure in his last decade, commiting suicide in 1939.

Object Details

Date 1914

Object type drawing

Medium watercolour and pencil on paper

Materials and techniques pencil | watercolour (medium) drawing (technique) paper (support)

Unframed 48.8 x 37.6 cm

Framed 82.5 x 71 cm

Signed signed and dated, top right: Mark Gertler 1914

Acquisition Acquired in 2002 by private treaty through Sotheby's with the assistance of the Art Fund, HLF, V&A/MLA Purchase Grant Fund, Pauline and Daniel Auerbach, Morven and Michael Heller, Agnes and Edward Lee, Hannah and David Lewis, David Stern, Laura and Barry Townsley, Della and Fred Worms and anonymous donors.

Accession number 2002-104

Display status not on display

Three years out of the Slade, Gertler’s work became increasingly experimental. Rabbi and Rabbitzin, 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. A companion drawing, Rabbi and Rabbitzin with Fish is in the British Museum.

The focus of the work is the relationship between the man and wife – without the title we would not know they are Rabbi and Rabbitzin – 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’.

Selected exhibition history

2015 Out of Chaos – Ben Uri: 100 Years in London


Noel Carrington, ed., "Mark Gertler: Selected Letters" (London: Rupert Hart-Davies, 1965), p. 84; John Woodeson, "Mark Gertler: Biography of a Painter, 1891-1939" (London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1972), pp. 127, 169, 184, 339-340, 365, pl. 15, Sarah MacDougall "Mark Gertler" (London: John Murray, 2002), pp. 121, 123-124.

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