When the Titanic struck the iceberg, the exact whereabouts of the Strauses was in question. Ellen Bird said that they were walking arm in arm on the upper deck. Although assured by the officers that there was no immediate cause for alarm, Mrs. Straus and her husband hurried to her stateroom, cautioning Miss Bird to dress hurriedly and as comfortably as she could, since the passengers might have to take to the lifeboats. They roused Isidor’s manservant, John Farthing. Then Mr. and Mrs. Straus returned to the boat deck where, shortly thereafter, Miss Bird and Mr. Farthing joined them. Another account states that they were all in bed and got up, dressed, and went up to the boat deck.
Because of his age, Isidor was encouraged by the ship’s Chief Officer, Henry T. Wilde, to enter lifeboat 8 on the forward port side. Mr. Straus stepped aside, explaining that he could not go until all the women and children had been given places. Mrs. Straus almost entered, then turned back and rejoined her husband. She refused to board the half-full boat without him, saying, “We have lived together for many years. Where you go, I go.” Other accounts say that her words were: “We have lived together for forty years. Where you are, I shall be.” Colonel Archibald Gracie, an amateur historian who had befriended Isidor Straus, and other friends tried to persuade her to enter the lifeboat, but she refused, preferring death with her husband to life without him. Mrs. Straus gave Miss Bird her fur coat, saying that she would need it, and saw that she entered the lifeboat. Accounts differ concerning their subsequent actions, some recount that Isidor and his wife sat on a pair of deck chairs awaiting death together; others state that they walked to the other side of the ship and awaited death there, clasped in each other’s arms. Both died on April 15 when the ship sank. Isidor’s body was recovered by the cable ship Mackay-Bennett and brought to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where it was identified before being shipped to New York. He is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. Ida’s body was not recovered. There are four memorials in New York City that are dedicated to them.
Gjertson depicts Isidor (age 67) and his wife (age 63) embracing after she refused to enter lifeboat 8, which tilts toward the ship’s gradually submerging bow to the left. They stand in front of the windows surrounding the first-class grand staircase. Their gestures are the same as those in Gjertson’s earlier painting, From This Day Forward, as Ida Straus entrusts herself to the loving embrace of her husband. With similar gestures Ellen Bird (age 31), already in the lifeboat, entreats Ida to get aboard, as does Chief Officer Henry T. Wilde (age 39) who helped load the port side lifeboats. Gjertson darkened the oars of the lifeboat in the final painting to emphasize the seat that Mrs. Straus refused to take. Miss Bird wears the fur coat given to her by Mrs. Straus. Their friend, Archibald Gracie (age 53), stands to Isidor’s right. Behind him are Miss Ruth Taussig (age 18) and her father, Emil (age 52). Ruth and her mother, Mrs. Tillie Taussig (age 39), survived in lifeboat 8; Emil perished. The left arm and hand of Mrs. Taussig is seen in the lifeboat on the left. John Farthing (age 57), with upraised arm, stands in the rear to the right encouraging Mrs. Straus to leave. Beside him are Thomas Pears (age 29) and his wife, Edith (age 22). She was saved in lifeboat 8, but Thomas perished. Gjertson chose these couples to contrast their decision to part with the decision of Mrs. Straus to remain. The Countess of Rothes (Lucy Noël Martha Dyer-Edwards, age 33) sits in the lifeboat to the right. She later steered the lifeboat because her husband had a yacht, and she knew how to manage a tiller. Grasping an oar in the lower right is the hand of Able Seaman Thomas Jones, who became a life-long friend of the Countess. Above, dying embers from an exploding flare illuminate the night sky and upper boat deck. Gjertson designed the painting to balance, yet have a decided list to the left, as if the viewer was being thrust toward the bow.
Gjertson did extensive research and collected period clothing and props for the painting but took liberties with the likenesses of persons represented and the size and disposition of the lifeboat. He did more than fifty drawings and studies for the work. There were no period photos of the area behind the Strauses, and the many models and schematics that he consulted often varied in important details. The Titanic and Olympic differed in subtle ways, and some of the photos claimed to be of the Titanic were likely of the Olympic. The shape of the windows is known, but he ultimately made his choices about the layout of the ship and lifeboat for artistic reasons. Gjertson’s intention was ideological rather than historical. He wanted to portray a timeless principle rather than to accurately depict an historical event.
Dr. Samuel Schulman spoke these words at the memorial service held for the Strauses at Temple Beth-El in New York: “Isidor Straus was a great Jew. All of the traditions of the Jew were dear to his heart. . .. When we are asked, ‘What enabled Isidor Straus to do all these things?’ our answer must be, ‘God blessed him and gave him Ida Straus.’ Isidor and Ida Straus were two persons with a single thought. Beloved and adored of each other in life, in death they were not separated.” Paul A. Kurzman, the great grandson of Isidor Straus, aptly expressed Gjertson’s intention: “Leaving the lifeboat to stay with her husband (who did not feel it was fitting for a man to take a seat that could be filled by women and children), Ida followed the Old Testament principle noted in the Book of Ruth. As we may recall, at a most difficult time, Ruth stayed close and loyal to her family, saying, ‘Entreat me not to leave you . . . for where you go, I will go, and where you will lodge, I will lodge . . . and where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried.’ In a world, not unlike today, where commitments were often brief and fragile, Isidor and Ida Straus – a couple who had everything – surrendered their lives to abide by principle, and to affirm their loving and everlasting bond to one another.”
View a selection of drawings for this work.
RMS Titanic: April 15, 1912
Oil on canvas, 20½ x 57¾. Old Parkland Art Collection, Dallas, TX.
The predella beneath “Where You Are, I Shall Be.” shows the Titanic’s port side at the same moment depicted above, about one o’clock in the morning of April 15, 1912. The bow is submerged to the anchor and the ship lists slightly to port. In the right background is the iceberg that she struck at 11:40 p.m. on the night of April 14th. There is some discrepancy concerning the actual iceberg that the Titanic struck. Of the photographs that exist of possible icebergs, the artist chose the most likely one. No other icebergs were reported in the area but, for aesthetic reasons, Gjertson added several. It is a perfectly calm and cloudless night. The ship faces north. The artist researched the position of the stars that fill the eastern sky. A distress flare explodes above the forward section of the ship above lifeboat 8. Lifeboat 6 has just been lowered. Lifeboat 4 has been lowered part way and is loading passengers from A deck. Lifeboat 8 is loading passengers and will be lowered in about 10 minutes. The lights are on at this time, as they remained lit until about two minutes before the ship sank at 2:20 a.m.
Story of the Wreck of the Titanic: The Ocean’s Greatest Disaster, the 1912 memorial edition, edited by Marshall Everett.
The Autobiography of Isidor Straus, The Straus Historical Society, 2011.