William Rothenstein was a significant force in the British art world of the first half of the twentieth century, proving influential as an administrator, dealer, teacher and writer. As an artist, he is best remembered for his portraits and for the images that he produced at home and abroad during the First and Second World Wars. William Rothenstein was born at 4 Spring Bank, Bradford, Yorkshire, on 29 January 1872, the fifth of six children of the prosperous German Jewish wool merchant, Moritz Rothenstein, and his wife, Bertha (née Dux). Of his two brothers, Charles became a significant collector, and Albert a painter and illustrator. Both would change their surname to Rutherston during the First World War.
Though an indifferent pupil at Bradford Grammar School, Rothenstein was a precociously talented artist, and left for London at the age of 16 in order to study at the Slade School of Fine Art. Working there under Alphonse Legros, he developed a strong enthusiasm for French art even before he went to Paris.
While a student at the Académie Julian (1889-93), he first attracted attention for his portrait drawings, and soon became a focus for anglophone artists of his generation.
He also made many acquaintances among advanced French writers and painters, including Edgar Degas and Camille Pissarro, who influenced his focus on subjects of modern life.
On returning to England, Rothenstein made his name as a draughtsman and social observer, and exhibited mainly at the New English Art Club (a member from 1894). He also helped to spearhead the fashion for bravura Spanish painting, even publishing a book on Goya (1899) with the encouragement of John Singer Sargent. Founding the Carfax Gallery with John Fothergill in 1898, he took an important and increasingly official, even conservative, role in artistic politics.
In 1899, Rothenstein married Alice Mary Knewstub, who had appeared on stage as Alice Kingsley. In 1902, they settled in Hampstead, in north London, and there brought up two sons and two daughters. Of his two sons, John became director of the Tate Gallery, and Michael an artist best known as a printmaker.
During the 1900s, Rothenstein worked on an important series of scenes of Jewish religious life in a restrained palette. In other paintings, he made use of brighter colours, which undoubtedly reflected the influence of Post-Impressionism, despite his expressing reservations about the movement. In 1910, he took up the cause of Indian art and artists, helping to found the India Society and then visiting the country at the end of that year.
While retaining their flat in Hampstead, Rothenstein and his family moved to Gloucestershire in 1912, and settled at Iles Farm, Far Oakridge, near Stroud. With the outbreak of the First World War, he encouraged the War Office to employ official war artists, and in December 1917 was himself appointed to go to the western front, though his German name led him to be treated with some suspicion.
Through the influence of H A L Fisher, Rothenstein would take up the chair of civic art at Sheffield University (1917-26) and become the Principal of the Royal College of Art (1920-35). He also acted as a trustee of the Tate Gallery (1927-33). He was knighted in 1931 and received an honorary degree from Oxford University in 1934. His numerous books include the memoirs, Men and Memories (1931-32) and Since Fifty (1939).
During the Second World War, Rothenstein produced portrait drawings of members of the RAF on their bases in England.
He died at his home in Far Oakridge on 16 March 1945. At his memorial service, his old friend, Max Beerbohm, gave the address.
His work is represented in numerous public collections, including the Imperial War Museums, the National Portrait Gallery and Tate; Bradford Museums and Galleries, Manchester Art Gallery, Museums Sheffield, the university of Southampton and The Wilson (Cheltenham); and National Museum Wales (Cardiff).
Further reading: Mary Lago, ‘Rothenstein, Sir William (1872-1945)’, H C G Matthew and Brian Harrison (eds), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, vol 47, pages 896-898; John Rothenstein, ‘Rothenstein, Sir William (b Bradford, 29 Jan 1872; d Far Oakridge, nr Stroud, 14 Feb 1945)’, Jane Turner (ed), The Dictionary of Art, London: Macmillan, 1996, vol 27, pages 218-219; Robert Speaight, William Rothenstein: The Portrait of an Artist in His Time, London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1962