Although unidentified, the striking, crop-haired, grey-eyed female sitter for The Violinist (referred to in a letter by Gertler as The Musical Girl) is known to have been a music student and a friend of Gertler’s family. Her distinctive looks clearly captured his imagination and between 1912 and 1914 she sat for at least four works, including the pencil head study directly related to this oil, an earlier painting (now lost, or possibly painted over) also known as The Violinist, and Gertler’s semi-autobiographical allegory, The Fruit Sorters (1914, New Walk Museum & Art Gallery, Leicester). None of these works, however, includes a violin.
When he painted this portrait in July 1912, Gertler was newly-fledged from the Slade School of Art, where he had been a star pupil, part of a brilliant generation that included David Bomberg, Dora Carrington, John Currie, C R W Nevinson, Paul Nash, Stanley Spencer and Edward Wadsworth. Always underpinned by careful draughtsmanship, Gertler’s work in this period reflected a unique fusion of influences that reflected both his Slade training and wider, non-European sources, principally, Northern- and early-Italian Renaissance portraiture, and the Egyptian sculpture and mummy paintings he had seen on his visits to the British Museum. His interest in the latter had been sparked by the sculptor Jacob Epstein, who took Gertler there in the summer of 1912. Afterwards, he wrote to Carrington that Epstein had ‘revealed to me such wonders in works of art that my inspiration knew no bounds and I came to the conclusion that Egyptian art is by far, by far, by far, the greatest of all art.[…] We moderns are but ants in comparison. But ants! As I think of this great art my ambition doubles and redoubles! […] if I am given many years in this world, I think! I think! I shall do great things!’
As an early exhibitor at Vanessa Bell’s Friday Club, as well as the New English Art Club (1911–16), Gertler’s work was beginning to receive regular critical attention and when he and Currie had a joint exhibition in December 1912 at the Chenil Gallery, Chelsea (run by Augustus John’s brother-in-law Jack Knewstub), they were greeted as ‘two artists of the future’. It was here that Gertler showed the earlier version of The Violinist, in which P G Konody, art critic at the Observer, immediately noted the Egyptian influence, equating the sitter with those in the Fayum mummy portraits: ‘Not only the general treatment, but the very type of his “Violinist”, thick-lipped, with dense, woolly black hair, recalls these encaustic paintings’, he observed. Konody also noted that, in addition to the principal sitter, this earlier work contained ‘figures from some Egyptian wall paintings that seem to grow out of the sitter’s shoulders, rather than tak[ing] their intended place in the background’.
In this second version, these figures have either been painted over or left out and while the Star’s critic regretted their loss, it is difficult to see how Gertler could have improved the final oil, which is undoubtedly one of his finest portraits of this period. His Violinist wears a loose, open-necked, vivid purple blouse similar to that worn shortly afterwards by Gertler’s sister Sophie in Portrait of a Girl (1912, Tate), and which may have been one of his own. The vibrant colours of her clothing and background are perfectly balanced against the luminous skin tones. Yet attention is focused entirely on her face and carefully delineated features; her downward-looking eyes with their delicate lids relating closely to the earlier pencil study for the work.
Gertler’s decision to paint on panel with an internal black line (also repeated in Carrington) to outline the edges may suggest that he originally hung both portraits unframed. Both are boldly framed against a blue Italianate background that reflects Gertler’s admiration for the Italian Quattrocento, which was also then at its height. At the Slade Gertler and Currie had been part of a short-lived group known as the ‘Neo-Primitives’ which also included Nevinson, Wadsworth and Allinson. Its origins lay in a visit to the Louvre’s ‘Primitive’ room on a trip made to Paris at Easter 1910. Although Currie, absent from this trip, was a latecomer to the group, it was he who in 1912, captured them all in a carefully-observed tempera group portrait entitled Some Later Primitives and Madame Tisceron (1912, The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent), as an act of homage to their Quattrocentro masters. Each artist produced at least one work in the Neo-Primitive manner and Gertler’s Violinist is probably his most outstanding example of this technique; together with Carrington, it also marks the culmination of this style. A hint towards the modernist work to come is provided by the way that the top of the sitter’s head pushes against the margins of the picture plane, barely contained by its edges, prefiguring other Gertler portraits including The Artist’s Brother, Harry, holding an Apple (1913, Tate, bequeathed by Edgar Astaire, 2015), which in the following year would break free of even this confinement.
We are very grateful to Sarah MacDougall for preparing this catalogue entry and also to Luke Gertler for his assistance with researching this work.