Isaac Rosenberg

20th Century Portraits Catalogue

Isaac Rosenberg

by Isaac Rosenberg
1915
11 5/8 in. x 8 3/4 in. (295 mm x 222 mm)
NPG 4129

This portraitback to top

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In her (unpublished) memoir, Rosenberg’s friend Sonia Cohen explained the significance of his choice of clothing, illustrated here and in the earlier trilby portraits, which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.

Footnotesback to top

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.

Referenceback to top

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

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

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

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

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

Physical descriptionback to top

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

Exhibitionsback to top

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

View all known portraits for Isaac Rosenberg