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 Mark Gertler  (1892 - 1939)

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Lived/Active: England      Known for: modernist portrait, figure and still life painting

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Please note: Artists not classified as American in our database may have limited biographical data compared to the extensive information about American artists.

Mark Gertler (9 December 1891 – 23 June 1939) was a British painter. His early life and his relationship with Dora Carrington were the inspiration for Gilbert Cannan's novel Mendel.  Also the characters of Loerke in D. H. Lawrence's Women in Love and Gombauld in Aldous Huxley's Crome Yellow were based on him.

Mark Gertler was born in Spitalfields, London, the youngest child of Jewish immigrants Louis Gertler and Kate "Golda" Berenbaum.  He had four older siblings: Deborah (b. 1881), Harry (b. 1882), Sophie (b. 1883) and Jacob "Jack" (b. 1886).  In 1892 his mother returned with the children (including Mark) to her native city, Przemysl, Austria-Hungary (now Poland), where his parents worked as innkeepers.  Though Louis was popular with his customers, mainly Austrian soldiers, the inn was a failure.  One night without telling anyone Louis simply left for America (ca. 1893) in search of work. He eventually sent word to Golda telling her that once he was settled she was to bring the children to live with him there. However, this venture also failed and his family never joined him in America. Instead, he returned to England and had his family join him in London in 1896, and his first name was subsequently anglicized as 'Mark'.

From an early age Gertler showed signs of having a great talent for drawing. Upon leaving school in 1906, he enrolled in art classes at Regent Street Polytechnic. Unfortunately, due to his family's poverty, he was forced to drop out after a year and in December 1907 began working as an apprentice at Clayton & Bell, a stained glass company.  He disliked his work there and rarely spoke of it in later years.

While there he attended evening classes at the Polytechnic.  In 1908 Gertler placed third in a national art competition; this inspired him to apply for a scholarship from the Jewish Education Aid Society (JEAS) in order to resume his studies as an artist. The application was successful.  Upon the advice of the prominent Jewish artist William Rothenstein, in 1908 he enrolled at the Slade School of Art, University College, London.  During the four years that he spent at the Slade, Gertler was a contemporary of Paul Nash, Edward Wadsworth, C.R.W. Nevinson and Stanley Spencer, among others.

It was during his time at Slade that Gertler met the painter Dora Carrington, whom he pursued relentlessly for many years.  His obsessive love for Carrington is detailed in his published letters and in Sarah MacDougall's book Mark Gertler. It is also represented in the 1995 film Carrington.  His love for Carrington was unrequited, and she spent most of her life living with the homosexual author Lytton Strachey, whom she was deeply in love with.

Carrington's unconventional relationship with Strachey, whom Gertler was extremely jealous of, and her eventual marriage to Ralph Partridge, destroyed her equally complex relationship with Gertler. He had been so distraught when he learned of Carrington's marriage that he tried to purchase a revolver, and threatened to commit suicide.

Gertler was patronised by Lady Ottoline Morrell, through whom he became acquainted with the Bloomsbury Group. She introduced him to Walter Sickert, the nominal leader of the Camden Town Group.  Gertler was soon enjoying great success as a painter of society portraits, but his temperamental manner and devotion to advancing his work according to his own vision led to increasing personal frustration and the alienation of potential sitters and buyers. As a result, he struggled frequently with poverty.

In 1914 the polymath art collector Edward Marsh became Gertler's patron. The relationship between the two men proved a difficult one, as Gertler felt that the system of patronage and the circle in which he moved was in direct conflict with his sense of self.  In 1916, as World War I dragged on, Gertler ended the relationship due to his pacifism and conscientious objection (Marsh being secretary to Winston Churchill and patron to some of the war poets).  Gertler's major painting, The Merry-Go-Round, was created in the midst of the war years and was described by Lawrence as "the best modern picture I have seen" (Letters, 9 October 1916).

In 1913 Gertler met the author and poet Gilbert Cannan who later described him as 'a small passionate man with green eyes'. Cannan subsequently invited Mark to stay with him and his wife Mary at their Mill House in Cholesbury and the two men became good friends.  Gertler lived there on and off between 1915-16 and painted Gilbert Cannan at his Mill now on view in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. The picture depicts Cannan outside the Mill with his two dogs. The black and white one called Luath had been the inspiration for the dog Nana in the stage production of J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan. It was Cannan who was responsible for introducing Lady Ottoline Morrell to Gertler's paintings and encouraging her to support his work. Cannan closely based the young Jewish character of his 1916 novel Mendel on Gertler's early life including his infatuation and affair with fellow artist Dora Carrington. 

Virginia Woolf recorded her impressions of Gertler after he came to visit her and her husband in Sussex in September 1918.  As he left they cried, ‘“Good God, what an egoist!” We have been talking about Gertler to Gertler for some 30 hours; it is like putting a microscope to your eye. One molehill is wonderfully clear; the surrounding world ceases to exist. But he is a forcible young man; if limited, able & respectable within those limits; as hard as a cricket ball; & as tightly rounded & stuffed in at the edges. We discussed — well, it always came back to Gertler."

Gertler's later works developed a sometimes very harsh edge to them, influenced by his increasing ill health. In 1920 he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, a disease which forced him to enter a sanatorium on a number of occasions during the twenties and thirties. Two of Gertler's close friends, D. H. Lawrence and Katherine Mansfield, both succumbed to the disease.

In 1930, Gertler married Marjorie Greatorex Hodgkinson, which resulted in the birth of a son, Luke Gertler, in 1932. The marriage was often difficult, punctuated by the frequent ill health of both, and with Gertler often suffering from the same feelings of constraint that destroyed his relationships with a number of friends and patrons. During the 1930s he also became a part-time teacher at the Westminster School of Art in order to supplement his intermittent income from painting.

Gertler gassed himself in his London studio in 1939, having attempted suicide on at least one prior occasion in 1936.  He was suffering at the time from increasing financial difficulties, his wife had recently left him, he had held a critically derided exhibition at the Lefevre Gallery, he was still depressed over the death of his mother and Carrington's own suicide (both in 1932), and he was filled with fear over the imminent world war.

Gertler’s obituary in The Times described his death as ‘a serious loss to British art. Opinions of his work are likely to vary,’ it conceded, ‘but it is safe to say that a considered list of the half-dozen most important painters under fifty working in England would include him'.  He was buried at Willesden Jewish cemetery.
Today Gertler's Spitalfields residence is home to the atelier of British tailor Timothy Everest.


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