Thomas Cooper Gotch – The Exile (1930)

She could be anyone, so you get close to see her. The fiery monotone background does not steal away from her mystery and, in fact, recedes as your gaze fixates on her. She looks like a rag doll dressed up hastily by her child-mother and abandoned carelessly on a chair quickly afterwards, slouching under the pull of gravity. The shoulders slump, the lower lip descends into a pout. Her highly ornate tunic and flapper’s bob haircut do nothing to alleviate the sense of helplessness pervading this portrait. They actually come across as an irony or a cruel joke, because beyond all pretenses, this otherwise fashionable young woman is, in fact, a helpless little girl.

And then the title — The Exile: Heavy is the Price I Paid for Love — strikes you as overly lyrical and evocative, as if straight out of a poem or ballad sung by candlelight, and gosh, you must find out more about her. Where did she come from? What’s her story? Was she swept up by historical events or did she shape her misery with the chisel of free will? The latter version is far more romantic, yet we know by now that historical context cannot be escaped.

Thomas Cooper Gotch - The Exile Heavy is the Price I Paid for Love (1930)
Thomas Cooper Gotch – The Exile: Heavy is the Price I Paid for Love (1930), oil on canvas. Alfred East Art Gallery, Kettering

When word got out that the Italian government would soon shut down Lombardy, its northern region, on March 8, 2020, in order to control its coronavirus outbreak, in just a matter of hours masses of people rushed to escape the upcoming lockdown, most of them retreating south. Once they got there they were not precisely welcome, to put it mildly. They were seen as threats, as carriers of disease, as rule-breakers that couldn’t and shouldn’t be trusted. The situation deteriorated so quickly that within two days the whole country was under lockdown, so as to encourage people to stay put and shelter-in-place, wherever they found themselves.

Running for freedom and yet faced with dejection, some of the Lombardy escapees of those chaotic, early days shared their epiphany, saying how they felt like refugees, how they finally understood how dehumanizing this experience could be. It was a bittersweet irony, very much belated, coming from a country whose policies had allowed tens of thousands of migrants to drown on its Mediterranean shores.

The 1920s and 1930s were notoriously rife with turmoil too. As long as you had a beating heart, you could have very well been a refugee. Against the backdrop of rifting social and political changes an exodus was sweeping across Europe and beyond. Between the Nazis’ rise to power in Germany, the fascists taking over in Italy, the Ottoman Empire’s genocides culminating with the extermination of 1.5 million Armenians, and the aftermath of Lenin’s Bolshevik revolution and the Civil War in Russia, millions of people were fleeing their home countries long before World War II had even started.

Painted around that time, in 1930 — a year before Thomas Cooper Gotch’s death — The Exile is shrouded in mystery. As of now, we know nothing about the identity of the sitter or about the suggestive, tantalizing title of her portrait. We could speculate endlessly. Could the young woman be a bourgeois Russian fleeing persecution? A fortunate Armenian using her connections to escape genocide? The daughter of a Greek sailor who, along with her lover, left the Anatolian peninsula and settled in England?

I won’t lie, I was disappointed and frustrated when I couldn’t unearth any new details about this painting. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that her mysterious identity — whether real or allegorical — has this universal quality about it, for she gives face to the suffering of amorphous masses of people. And yes, it’s true that displacement oftentimes requires extraordinary, once-in-a-lifetime circumstances, but its corollary — the need for belonging — couldn’t be more ordinary. It is present in all of us, from our first breath to our last.


Note: If there are any paintings you’d like to know more about, please let me know. My research has been in a rut lately, as my findings unearth tragedies even beneath otherwise seemingly neutral canvases. It looks as if no artwork comes without its cost of suffering or without being inextricably linked to the weightiness of human existence. With that being said, a change of perspective (perhaps in subject matter, style or epoch) would be most welcome.

15 Comments Add yours

  1. David says:

    I love this painting, the story you told, and the way you told it. At first I thought this was a photo but knowing it is not doesn’t keep me from looking at it as a photo versus a painting. (Not sure that would make sense to anyone.)

    The mystery surrounding the who, what, where, when, and why of the painting adds to its allure for me, but is also irritating.

    Have you ever written anything about Edward Hopper or have any interest in him?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Gabriela says:

      Thank you for your kind words, David. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I wrote about Hopper’s New York Movie, but I think you already read it.

      I was actually thinking to maaaaaaybe do a post on … flowers, which is definitely more up your alley, given your photography. I’m particularly interested in those vintage botanical illustrations (Albrecht Dürer and Leonardo da Vinci led the way) . You’d think flowers are a pretty safe subject, no? But as I’m reading about Maria Sybilla Merian, who was also a scientist, I come across this very disturbing description she wrote about the peacock flower:

      “The Indians, who are not treated well by their Dutch masters, use the seeds to abort their children, so that they will not become slaves like themselves. The black slaves from Guinea and Angola have demanded to be well treated, threatening to refuse to have children. In fact, they sometimes take their own lives because they are treated so badly, and because they believe they will be born again, free and living in their own land. They told me this themselves.”


      Liked by 1 person

      1. David says:

        Don’t recall ever hearing anything like that before, and it is heartbreaking, but I can see where it could make sense to someone in that position.

        Durer’s portraits could be interesting and you could go with one of a thousand routes with Leonardo. But it all boils down to what interests or intrigues you. Selfishly I hope you find something because I do enjoy your posts.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Gabriela says:

          If only more people were selfish like you, hehe.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. ReinventIngrid says:

    I don’t know what I love most: the painting, the mysterious sitter with her astonishingly beautiful brocaded tunique or your exploration of who she may be, what may be her story and how (sometimes unknowingly) we all eventually share the same experiences and feelings because living in isolation may be what we are forced to do right now, yet we’re all humans so it’s a total myth we should start accepting to live our lives with more empathy and compassion. Another lesson art brings to us!
    So good to read you again, Gabriela!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Gabriela says:

      Thank you so much, Ingrid! Your comments are always so sweet and thoughtful. I know we have it easy compared to how turbulent the first half of the 20th century was, but this pandemic is certainly making us more reflective. Hopefully it will turn us more compassionate, too.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Sruthy says:

    Gabriela, it’s always so good to read you 🙂 would it maybe interest you to look into contemporary paintings? I for one would really love to see your take on some.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Gabriela says:

      Thank you, Sruthy! Do you have anyone in particular in mind? I did some posts in the past about contemporary artists, but I selected works from the 90s and early-2000s.


  4. Eric Wayne says:

    I’ve inadvertently become a bit of a connoisseur of portrait painting, and so I first find myself caught in visually checking proportions, perspective, lighting, and so on for mistakes. It all seems to work well enough, though I’m more impressed with the painting of the “ornate tunic”. I don’t know how someone paints all that texture and changing light and movement of fabric. I guess it doesn’t have to be as perfect to convince the eye.

    I like the not-knowing about the portrait, because even the circumstances, had we known them, would not be the same as who the person is. A person is not defined by their changing circumstances, or at least not by just one immediate set of them. She’s got her whole history and her future.

    The artist here can only tell us about her through visual language, not through facts expressed in word. In this case, we have full access to what he actually conveyed, and it may be fictitious as relates to historical events.

    That said, I’d like to know more about her, too. But, to the artist’s credit, it’s because he’s created a mysterious personage that suggests a personage of some character and lived wisdom, perhaps tragedy.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Gabriela says:

      “I like the not-knowing about the portrait, because even the circumstances, had we known them, would not be the same as who the person is. A person is not defined by their changing circumstances, or at least not by just one immediate set of them. She’s got her whole history and her future.”

      Beautifully said. I know you don’t like knowing too much, so as not to steal away from the merits of the art. But damn, this is an intriguing portrait.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. Haven’t i said this to you before, if a photograph is worth a thousand words, you know all of those right thousand words.
    And this time the metaphors right at the start, the imagination, the pathos of times, long gone by and still pervading us , are so well captured, i wonder, i genuinely wonder both the painter and the painted would have felt their voices heard in this little write up of yours.

    The painting by itself seems like child mother, left alone by a child mother as you so aptly put it. I see how the red, fiery red of the background almost fades for i am captivated by the features of this girl.

    They say we can see Galaxies in people’s eyes if we look close enough. How much closer do we have to look to find something that brings forth love, compassion and empathy from us.
    For those in exile. And aren’t we all in some form of an exile from some place we long to be in.

    Thank you so much for writing this. Your talent should always outshine your doubts in writing. This is a good example why.

    Much much love.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. One thing I love about this portrait is its timelessness. You can’t tell which year/era this is from. It could be from the 1930s, or it could have been done last year.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Gabriela says:

      Great point! Well, realism IS timeless, hehe.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Millie says:

    This is a great article! Funny to come across this when doing a little research into the painting, as the sitter for the portrait is actually my great-grandmother.


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