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image icon 'Alone in a shoe shop', c1896

'Alone in a shoe shop', c1896
Art Gallery of South Australia


This is a small oil painting on card made around 1896 in Tokyo by Mortimer Menpes (1855-1938). The work measures 38.1 cm x 21.6 cm and shows a child, wearing a purplish garment, sitting on a long bench. Some short horizontal brushstrokes in bright red, blue and orange can be seen in the dark area immediately behind the bench. A sign on the far left is in Japanese characters.

Educational value

This resource is useful because it:

  • is a painting by the Australian-born British artist Mortimer Menpes - Menpes studied at the School of Design in Adelaide and the National Art Training School, London; in 1880, the year he completed his training, the British press praised a series of his etched portraits that had been gifted to the British Museum; Menpes eventually became a major figure in the printmaking revival that swept British art during the late 19th century; from 1880 to 1914 he produced over 700 different etchings and drypoints, and is widely credited with leading a revival in colour etching
  • shows the direct influence of the work and ideas of the artist James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) - Whistler advocated a system of making art based on harmonies of tone and colour; he believed that painting should exist for its own sake, not just as a vehicle for a story or moral; Menpes was a protégé of the controversial Whistler, their eight-year relationship ending when Whistler accused Menpes of plagiarism, following Menpes’s successful exhibition of Japanese-style pictures at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1888, which Whistler considered were too closely modelled on his own art
  • is an excellent example of Menpes’s skill in creating small impressionistic panel paintings in the manner of Whistler - Menpes’s association with Whistler gave him a taste for making art based on aesthetic principles, calling for an audacious painting technique in which the subject and mood of the image were established in a minimum of confident brush sweeps and gestures; this approach is evident in 'Alone' in the way the artist has balanced the light in the foreground with the dark open space of the unlit shoe shop; it can also be seen in the bold and decisive brush work
  • is an expression of Menpes’s admiration for Japanese culture - at that time, many visual artists such as Whistler were attracted to the bold, flat and decorative qualities of traditional Japanese wood-cut 'ukiyo-e' (pictures of the floating world) prints; the 'ukiyo-e' influence is evident in 'Alone' in the way Menpes has eliminated details and massed the lights and darks so that, from a distance, the eye tends to read the image as an abstract interplay of darks and lights, colours and shapes; Menpes visited Japan in 1887 and was one of the very few European artists of the period to undertake instruction from a Japanese artist, the master painter and printmaker Kawanabe Kyosai (1831-89)
  • is a fresh and engaging image - the visual isolation of the child, particularly its face, set against the dark undefined backdrop of the shoe shop, is an inspired piece of compositional design which raises the question of why the child is still in the shop when everyone else appears to have gone.