Isaac Rosenberg

Isaac Rosenberg, by Isaac Rosenberg, 1915 - NPG 4129 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

© National Portrait Gallery, London

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Isaac Rosenberg

by Isaac Rosenberg
oil on panel, 1915
11 5/8 in. x 8 3/4 in. (295 mm x 222 mm)
Given by the sitter's sister, Annie Wynick (née Rosenberg), 1959
Primary Collection
NPG 4129

Sitterback to top

  • Isaac Rosenberg (1890-1918), Painter and poet. Sitter in 2 portraits, Artist of 1 portrait.

Artistback to top

  • Isaac Rosenberg (1890-1918), Painter and poet. Artist of 1 portrait, Sitter in 2 portraits.

This portraitback to top

Physical description

Head-and-shoulders, head three-quarters to the right, eyes to viewer.


This work, completed in the same year that Isaac Rosenberg enlisted in the army, was much admired by artists and art historians of the time and is one of many self-portraits that this Jewish artist completed before his untimely death on the Front line in 1918. [1] During Rosenberg's early days as a painter he had very little money to pay for proper studio space or professional sitters and so often had to execute portraits of himself 'with a mirror propped up on the rickety table', probably because, as his nephew Isaac Horvitch commented, 'it was simply that he had no other sitters.' [2]

Self-Portrait, 1915 shows the head and shoulders of the artist, with his eyes staring directly out to the viewer, and is the final portrait that Rosenberg completed of himself wearing this distinctive 'violently green broad-brimmed Tyrolean' hat. [3] Of a kind fashionable among artists at this time, this same 'trilby' hat appears in two earlier paintings by the artist, both of which are thought to lack the depth and punch of this third and final work. [4] Joseph Cohen, a biographer of Rosenberg, believes that the artist bought this hat as 'a grand gesture, full of significance' in order to symbolise his release in 1911 from an unfulfilling apprenticeship at a firm of engravers on Fleet Street and 'to celebrate having crossed the frontier into a brave new world'. [5] It was also apparently intended to signal Rosenberg's 'emancipation from the ghetto and his entry into the world of art.' [6]

In her (unpublished) memoir, Rosenberg's friend Sonia Cohen explained the significance of his choice of clothing, illustrated here and in the earlier trilby portraits, which marked him out as one of the bohemians:

Not only did artists and social revolutionaries separate themselves from philistines (bowler and silk hated respectable) by wearing soft-brimmed sombreros, but their emancipated exclusiveness was further shown in the colour and form of their neckwear. A red tie was the sign of a social revolutionary; that is, a Social Democrat or Anarchist, and a black silk bow showed an artist - a poet or musician as well as a painter of pictures. The bows were tied under low cut 'rational' collars, being large and floppy like those worn by Paderewski and Puccini's artist in La Bohème, Fabians and such like intellectuals went bareheaded with long unoiled hair; and as far as I can remember these young men wore ties in Band of Hope blue. [7]

Cohen also noted that Rosenberg 'favoured pink ties', an assessment that is supported by the inclusion of this colour tie in the two earlier self-portraits but not in the third, where the artist wears a much darker shade. [8]

The final painting is a clear reworking of the two images that went before it, featuring a similar pose, clothing and facial expression, but it has also been refined. According to some, in this work Rosenberg finally achieves a sophisticated mixture of the bold pose and assured handling that was somewhat lacking in the earlier portraits. [9] This mixture underpins the composition with his technique of strong vertical brushstrokes, which seems to have originated in his Head of a Woman: Grey and Red from 1912.

In October of 1915 Rosenberg enlisted. He embarked with his unit to France in the following year and remained there until his death whilst on night patrol in April 1918.


Isaac Rosenberg retrospective Leeds University Gallery, 1959

Isaac Rosenberg: A Poet & Painter of the First World War National Book League, 1975 (30)

Isaac Rosenberg Poet and Painter 1890-1918: The half used life Imperial War Museum, London, November 1990-April 1991

Isaac Rosenberg: Whitechapel at War Ben Uri Gallery, The London Jewish Museum of Art, April - June 2008. Toured to Stanley and Audrey Burton Gallery, Leeds University.


Cohen, J. Journey to the Trenches: The Life of Isaac Rosenberg, 1890-1918 (London: Robson Books, 1975)

Collecott, D. 'Isaac Rosenberg (1880-1918): A Cross-Cultural Study', in Newman, ed., Jewish East End, pp. 268-80

Cooper, J. Visitor's Guide (National Portrait Gallery, 2000), p. 92 *

Crane, D. and Judd, A. Character Sketches: First World War Poets (National Portrait Gallery, 1997), p. 44 *

Dickson, R. and MacDougall, S. eds. Whitechapel at War: Isaac Rosenberg & his circle (Ben Uri Gallery, The London Jewish Museum of Art, 2008) *

Liddiard, J. Isaac Rosenberg: The Half Used Life (London: V Gollancz, 1975)

Parsons, I. ed. The Collected Works of Isaac Rosenberg: Poetry, Prose, Letters, Paintings and Drawings (London: Chatto and Windus, 1979)

Saywell, D. and Simon, J. Complete Illustrated Catalogue (National Portrait Gallery, 2004), p. 532 *

Tickner, L. Modern Life & Modern Subjects: British Art in the Early Twentieth Century (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2000) *

Tomlinson, C. Isaac Rosenberg of Bristol (Bristol: Historical Association, 1982)

Wilson, J. M. Isaac Rosenberg: The Making of a Great War Poet: A New Life (London: Weidenfield & Nicholson, 2008)

Wilson, J. M. Isaac Rosenberg, Poet and Painter: A Biography (London: Cecil Woolf, 1975)
* signifies works which contain specific references to this portrait.


1906 Self-Portrait The Joseph Cohen Collection of World War I Literature/ the Joseph M. Bruccoli Great War Collection, Thomas Cooper Library, University of South Carolina. Pencil on soft card.

1909 Portrait of Isaac Rosenberg. Painting by John Amshewitz, current whereabouts unknown. Reproduced in S. B. Amshewitz, The Paintings of J H M Amshewitz RBA (London: B T Batsford Ltd, 1951), Plate 10.

c.1910-12 Self-Portrait (in profile facing left) Current whereabouts unknown, formerly David Burton. Pencil.

1911 Studio Portrait of Isaac Rosenberg Bernard Wynick. Photograph.

1911 Self-Portrait Tate, London (T01550). Oil on canvas.

1912 Self-Portrait Mrs Betty Silver. Oil on board.

1912 Self-Portrait The Joseph Cohen Collection of World War I Literature/ the Joseph M. Bruccoli Great War Collection, Thomas Cooper Library, University of South Carolina. Pencil on paper.

1913 Head of a Poet (Isaac Rosenberg). By David Bomberg, current whereabouts unknown

1913 Portrait of Isaac Rosenberg. By Clare Winsten, British Museum. Graphite on paper.

c.1914 Self-Portrait with Trilby (three-quarter length) Private Collection, courtesy of Sotheby's. Oil on canvas.

1914 Portrait of Isaac Rosenberg. By Clare Winsten, UCL Art Collections, University College London. Pencil on paper.

1914 Self-Portrait in a Pink Tie Imperial War Museum, London. Oil on board.

1914 Self-Portrait in a Red Tie Mrs Betty Silver. Oil on canvas.

1914-15 Self-Portrait with Trilby (facing left) Isaac Horvitch collection. Oil on board.

c.1915 Isaac Rosenberg. By London Art Studios, National Portrait Gallery, London (NPG P230). Bromide print mounted on a postcard.

1915 Isaac Rosenberg. By Clare Winsten, Private Collection. Photograph.

1916 Self-Portrait in a Steel Helmet Private Collection. Black chalk and gouache on brown wrapping paper. Exhibited in Apocalypse: Unveiling a lost masterpiece by Marc Chagall Ben Uri Gallery, The London Jewish Museum of Art, 2010. Completed in the trenches.

1917 Isaac Rosenberg in Uniform Bernard Wynick. Photograph.


1) R. Dickson and S. MacDougall, eds. Whitechapel at War: Isaac Rosenberg & his circle (Ben Uri Gallery, The London Jewish Museum of Art, 2008), p. 16.
2) Quoted in J. Liddiard, ed. Isaac Rosenberg Poetry Out of My Head and Heart - Unpublished Letters and Poem Versions (London: Enitharmon Press, 2007), p. 10.
3) In Joseph Leftwich Diary, Tower Hamlets, entries for 3,5,8 and 9 March 1911; cited in Dickson and MacDougall, eds. (2008), p. 29.
4) L. Tickner, Modern Life & Modern Subjects: British Art in the Early Twentieth Century (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2000), p.307.
5) J. Cohen, Journey to the Trenches: The Life of Isaac Rosenberg, 1890-1918 (London: Robson Books, 1975), p. 42.
6) Tickner (2000), p.201.
7) Excerpts from unpublished memoirs of Sonia Joslen (née Cohen), courtesy of Joan Rodker; cited in Dickson and MacDougall, eds. (2008), p. 33.
8) Ibid.
9) Dickson and MacDougall, eds. (2008), p. 30.

Linked publicationsback to top

Linked displays and exhibitionsback to top

Events of 1915back to top

Current affairs

The Times Newspaper reports that Britain's Army is suffering from a lack of Ammunition Shells, pointing the finger of blame at the Liberal government. The Shell Scandal forced Asquith to form a new coalition government, bringing Conservatives into the cabinet and demonstrating the need to gear the whole country's economy towards the war effort.

Art and science

As the threat from aerial attack increased, the decision was made to protect the national art collections by storing them in basements or in locations outside London. On 15th October the National Portrait Gallery under the directorship of Sir Charles John Holmes closed its doors to the public and removed paintings from the walls.


Stalemate ensues on the Western Front and trench warfare begins as both sides take up defensive positions. While offensive strategies become futile, serious loss of life occurs with the first deployment of tanks and the use of poison gas.
Albert Einstein publishes his General Theory of Relativity, a model of gravitation and cosmology.

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