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Art Analysis: 'Mother and Child’ by Sir William Rothenstein

By James Egerton

Rothenstein’s portrait shows the artist's wife Alice with their infant son John in the first-floor sitting room of their house at 26 Church Row, Hampstead. Rothenstein married Alice Knewstub (the actress Alice Kingsley) in 1899. The couple first lived at Edwardes Square, Kensington before moving to the larger house at Hampstead in November 1902. The baby Alice was then expecting to die immediately after birth, in December. John, their first child, had been born on 11 July 1901 and was therefore about age two at the time of this portrait. Their second surviving child, Rachel, born in December 1903, was probably expected at the time this painting was made.

Rothenstein creating such a serene painting that just exudes parental love and the comfort of home was his escape from the devastating tragedy of losing his newborn child. He created many paintings throughout his life though those of domestic scenes are the most well known. Rothenstein, while dedicated to his art and career as a curator, was an extremely family orientated man, showing intense loyalty to his wife and unconditional love to their children. This painting was part of a series of portraits Rosenstein did of family and close friends in his home, where the interior painted was just, if not more, important than the figures in them.

The composition of the portrait is one of the most notable points about it. Rothenstein’s wife following the rule of thirds as she’s seated on the right of the fireplace but holding up her son towards the centre, emphasising both parent’s adoration of their child. A closer look into the background gives us a peek at Rothenstein’s house and how it reflects his home environment. The decor is sparse, one small picture on the wall, and on the mantelpiece, an ornamental clock, a model boat, and another picture, as well as a few books. This lack of decadence, real or imaginary, displays how dear his family is to his heart, how they’re the key pieces of the place where he feels most comfortable, where he can always rely on for support and love.

The use of light in this piece is also incredibly interesting. The source of light in the scene would be a large window to the right of the piece but it is obscured by a dark curtain that drapes all the way from the ceiling to the floor. The result of this is the interior being neatly and warmly illuminated without any harsh brightness to dominate the scene. It’s also worth noting that Alice sits facing away from the window to hold her son up to the light, a show of how a home is a place of loving sacrifice. Rothenstein expressed his adoration for seventeenth-century Dutch paintings, such as those by Jan Vermeer, especially how they used light to pervade a quiet stillness.

This painting now resides in the Tate Britain (unfortunately not on display), a gallery which Rothenstein himself directed from 1938 to 1964 and subsequently left a large portion of his paintings to upon his death in 1992.

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