This picture was created on the eve of the First World War. It depicts a Rabbi and Rebbetzin.
The picture shows a very simple way of life. We would not know that the man is a Rabbi unless we read the title of the work. There is no religious setting depicted nor any religious clothing or artefacts. It is, however, drawn in a style that draws on techniques of the Modernist artists of the time, such as Cubism. This reveals a tension between the subject and content of the picture, which is ‘traditional’ and simple, but it is drawn in a modern style. This can be seen to represent what is happening in the world at the time: the simpler and more traditional ways of life are being threatened and changed by the modern world and the coming war, as well as the development of technology, industry and machinery.
The couple can be seen as representative of Jewish people throughout history; their large eyes could allude to past Jewish persecution and suffering. However this apparent vulnerability contrasts with the fact that the figures appear robust. They have large strong hands, which could be compared to the hands of peasants who have had to struggle and work hard in their lives. Furthermore, the figures have their arms locked into each other like a chain that cannot break. The figures are strong and boldly drawn. They look resilient, as though they can withstand anything
Importance of Mother
The woman (the Rebbetzin) is central to the picture. This can be seen to represent the importance of the Mother within Judaism. However, we also know that Gertler’s mother was of great importance to him. This may explain why the Rabbitzen is shown in the first place (Rebbetzins were not usually depicted in art works) but also why she is central in the composition of the picture.
The picture is made by drawing over a grid, which you can see in the background. This was a very common technique for artists who were studying at the time at the Slade School of Art. It also indicates that Gertler may have been planning to turn the work into a large painting at some point, though there is no evidence that he did. The grid helps artists to enlarge their pictures at a later date.
Find more art resources for Holocaust education by the Ben Uri gallery in collaboration with the London Grid for Learning.