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Sir William Rothenstein (29 January 1872 – 14 February 1945) was an English painter, draughtsman* and writer on art.
William Rothenstein was born into a German-Jewish family in Bradford, West Yorkshire. His father, Moritz, emigrated from Germany in 1859 to work in Bradford's burgeoning textile industry. Soon afterwards he married Bertha Dux, and they had six children, of which William was the fifth.
Rothenstein left Bradford Grammar School at the age of sixteen to study at the Slade School of Art*, London (1888-1893), where he was taught by Alphonse Legros, and the Académie Julian* in Paris (1889-1893), where he met and was encouraged by James McNeill Whistler, Edgar Degas and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec. Whilst in Paris he also befriended the Anglo-Australian artist Charles Conder, with whom he shared a studio in Montmartre. In 1893 he returned to England to work on "Oxford Characters" a series of lithographic* portraits.
In Oxford he met and became a close friend of the caricaturist* and parodist Max Beerbohm, who later immortalised him in the short story Enoch Soames (1919). During the 1890s Rothenstein exhibited with the New English Art Club* and, in 1900, won a silver medal for his painting The Doll's House at the Exposition Universelle. In 1898 he co-founded the Carfax Gallery in St. James' Piccadilly with John Fothergill. During its early years the gallery was closely associated with such artists as Charles Conder, Philip Wilson Steer, Charles Ricketts and Augustus John. It also exhibited the work of Auguste Rodin, whose growing reputation in England owed much to Rothenstein's friendship and missionary zeal. The gallery was later the home for all three exhibitions of The Camden Town Group*, led by Rothenstein's friend and close contemporary Walter Sickert.
Rothenstein is best known for his portrait drawings of famous individuals and for being an official war artist in both World War I and World War II. He was also a member of the International Society of Sculptors, Painters & Gravers. The style and subject of his paintings varies, though certain themes reappear, in particular an interest in 'weighty' or 'essential' subjects tackled in a restrained manner. Good examples include Parting at Morning (1891), Mother and Child (1903) and Jews Mourning at a Synagogue (1907) - all of which are owned by the Tate Gallery. The National Portrait Gallery owns over two hundred of his portraits. In 2011 the BBC and the Public Catalogue Foundation began cataloguing all of his paintings in public ownership online.
Between 1902 and 1912 Rothenstein lived in Hampstead, London, where his social circle included such names as H.G.Wells, Joseph Conrad and the artist Augustus John. Amongst the young artists to visit Rothenstein in Hampstead were Mark Gertler and Paul Nash. During this period Rothenstein worked on a series of important paintings in the predominantly Jewish East End of London, some of which were included in the influential 1906 exhibition of Jewish Art and Antiquaries at the Whitechapel Gallery. Despite this, Rothenstein is rarely considered as a major Anglo-Jewish artist.
Rothenstein maintained a lifelong fascination for Indian sculpture and painting, and in 1910 set out on a seminal tour of the subcontinent's major artistic and religious sites. This began with a visit to the ancient Buddhist caves of Ajanta, where he observed Lady Christiana Herringham and Nandalal Bose making watercolor copies of the ancient frescoes; and ended with a stay in Calcutta, where he witnessed the attempts of Abanindranath Tagore to revive the techniques and aesthetics of traditional Indian painting.
Rothenstein was Principal of the Royal College of Art* from 1920 to 1935, where he encouraged figures including Edward Burra, U Ba Nyan and Henry Moore. Moore was to later to write that Rothenstein 'gave me the feeling that there was no barrier, no limit to what a young provincial student could get to be and do'. His collections of portrait drawings include Oxford Characters (1896), English Portraits (1898), Twelve Portraits (1929) and Contemporaries (1937). He wrote several critical books and pamphlets, including Goya (1900; the first English monograph on the artist), A Plea for a Wider Use of Artists & Craftsmen (1916) and Whither Painting (1932). During the 1930s he published three volumes of memoirs: Men and Memories, Vol I and II and Since Fifty. Rothenstein was knighted in 1931.
In 1899 William Rothenstein married Alice Knewstub. He had four children: John, Betty, Rachel and Michael. John Rothenstein later gained fame as an art historian and art administrator (he was Director of the Tate Gallery from 1938 to 1964). Michael Rothenstein, whose divorce from Duffy Ayers caused a major controversy in British society, was a talented printmaker*.
William's two brothers, Charles and Albert, were also heavily involved in the arts. Charles (1866–1927), who followed his father into the wool trade, was an important collector - and left his entire collection to the Manchester City Art Gallery in 1925. Albert (1881–1953) was a painter, illustrator and costume designer. Both brothers changed their surname to Rutherston during the First World War.
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