Rabbi and Rabbitzen: a very simple way of life

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Mark Gertler (1891-1939)

Gertler was the youngest son of poor Jewish immigrants from Austria who settled in the East End of London.

In 1908, he was among the first Jewish, working-class students of his generation, to enrol at the Slade College of Art. He and other Jewish East End artists became known as ‘the Whitechapel Boys’.

In the 1930s, he found it hard to sell his work and was forced to teach part-time. On June 23 1939 depressed by ill-health, a badly-received exhibition, lack of sales and fear of imminent war, he took his own life.

Interpreting the image

Gertler has linked the arms of the couple like a chain. What message do you think Gertler was trying to give by representing the couple in this way?

How would you describe the expressions on the faces of the couple?

The simplified geometric shapes can be described as representative of the ‘Modernist’ style of this painting.

Gertler has also used repetition of shapes in this work, such as in the similarity between the loaf of bread and the ‘bun’ hairstyle of the Rebbetzin.

What other shape repetitions can you see?

A very simple way of life

This picture was created on the eve of the First World War. It depicts a Rabbi (Head of the Community, Minister of the Synagogue and a Learned Man and Teacher) and Rebbetzin (the Rabbi’s wife).

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. However, it is drawn in a style, which draws on techniques (such as Cubism) of the Modernist artists of the time. 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.

For more information about the art resources of the Ben Uri gallery in collaboration with the London Grid for Learning click here.