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Bernstein’s Style

Posted on June 24th, 2019 by

Part 4 of “Saul Bernstein: Baltimore Artist,” written by Jobi Okin Zink, former JMM collections manager. Originally published in Generations – Winter 2001.

Several of Bernstein’s student works, including a charcoal drawing, “Woman Seated with Apron,” reside in the Museum’s collection and illustrate his mastery of the academic, traditional style. His ability to nuance shade and color convey the different weights and textures of his model’s lacy head covering, and heavy dress. It is easy to understand why Bernstein’s instructors offered favorable remarks about his works and recommended them for exhibition.

“Woman Seated with Apron,” 1897. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Bernard Trupp, JMM 1984.125.1

However, at the turn of the 20th century, Paris was the center for modern art and artistic innovation. Artists were no longer satisfied with painting the world literally as it appeared before their eyes. Impressionist techniques such as breaking up the surface of an artifact into bits and flecks of color, were spawning newer artistic methods. Although artists like Paul Cézanne and Henri Matisse were still a few years away from the breakthrough paintings that would inaugurate the Cubist and Fauvre are movements, they were already beginning to experiment with bright, vivid colors in unnatural combinations and to challenge the viewer by eliding the foreground and background in their paintings. In letters to Henrietta Szold and his brother Ben, Bernstein wrote that he was “uncomfortable” with the noise and heat in Paris, but one can also imagine that his discontent stemmed from a distaste for the new and unexpected approaches of modern art.

Saul Bernstein (right) recuperating from an appendectomy, at Hospital Cochin in Paris, June 1900. Gift of Jastrow and Alexandra Levin, JMM 1986.10.8a.

In the summer of 1900, after recovering from appendicitis, Bernstein moved to the small village of Laren, Holland. Here he continued to grind his own pigments and to paint in a traditional, academic style in which a painting of an apple looks like an apple and a representation of a chair reproduces the image of a chair. Bernstein used his landlord and local peasants as models and painted them as they were. The wrinkles on their faces and their gnarled fingers were neither imagined or exaggerated. Viewing Rembrandt’s paintings in Amsterdam enabled Bernstein to see how much variety he could achieve with a limited palette in his own works, particularly with the absence of blue in paintings like the Museum’s “Woman in A Chair.”

Saul Bernstein standing in a field in Holland, c. 1900. Gift of Peter Bernstein, JMM CP 25.2012.19.1.

Not all of Bernstein’s paintings were of Dutch interiors or peasants. In 1900 he completed “The Talmudist,” which is also on display in Framing the Collections. Numerous Dutch influences are evident: a spare interior with a window; a dark shadowy palette like Rembrandt’s; a hint of the sitter’s inner psychology. Although “The Talmudist” is larger than Bernstein’s other Dutch interiors in the Museum collection, it too is not a formal portrait, but a painting that includes a three-quarter view of a male figure on the right side of the frame. The title indicates that the subject is not an individual, but rather a “Type.” The old man with a long flowing beard has his left hand cupped to follow a line of text in one of the volumes stacked on the table. The viewer senses the scholar’s dedication as he pores over his books. The text is not visible, but from Bernstein’s title one understands that he is studying a chapter of Talmud.

“The Talmudist,” 1900. Gift of Stephen and Joan Kolodny, JMM 1993.165.1.

“The Talmudist” also differs from the majority of the works which hang salon-style along the Museum’s gallery walls in that the artist not only reveals character, but also evokes a setting and demonstrates his skill in rendering light and shadow. In the upper-left portion of the canvas Bernstein has painted a deep-set window with books arranged on its sill. The window-frame interior is a powder-blue that provides a strong contrast to the otherwise somber palette. The scene outside the window is blurred, preventing the viewer from recognizing the details of the setting; however, the viewer can follow the diagonal stream of light from the corner of the window, across the stack of books, and into the scholar’s face.

“Weaving Shop, Larren, Holland,” 1900. Museum purchase, JMM 1994.102.1.

Another painting in the Museum collection, “Weaving Shop, Laren Holland,” also completed in 1900, demonstrates again how Bernstein can take a “type” and create a beautiful genre scene. The painting depicts a weaving shop with a large window across the back wall and a young man standing on the right. Again, the viewer cannot discern the setting beyond the glass panes. The blond-haired, blue-eyed man wearing a stereotypic Dutch cap with a small visor, a brown vest over a blue chambray shirt, brown pants, and oversized clogs, stares directly at the opposite wall, although there does not appear to be anything there to fix his gaze. A large wooden loom or weaving machine occupies the lower left half of the canvas.

Continue to Part 5: Bernstein and Szold, publishing on July 1, 2019.


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An Artist’s Education

Posted on June 10th, 2019 by

Part 3 of “Saul Bernstein: Baltimore Artist,” written by Jobi Okin Zink, former JMM collections manager. Originally published in Generations – Winter 2001.

Bernstein completed the four-year course of study at Maryland Institute in eighteen months and then studied briefly at the Metropolitan School of Fine Art in New York. He wanted to become “the first great Zionist artist” and create propaganda for the Zionist movement, but first he sought additional training. The great studios of Paris beckoned to him. Otto Fuchs, one of Bernstein’s professors at the Maryland Institute, persuaded Mendes Cohen, a wealthy Baltimorean and president of the Maryland Historical Society, contribute $50 toward Bernstein’s trip abroad. Henrietta Szold, whom Bernstein knew through his involvement in the Baltimore Zionist Association, helped to sell his works to raise additional funds. Szold also suggested to New York financier and philanthropist Jacob Schiff that he donate money to support Bernstein’s studies abroad.

Saul Bernstein (extreme right, back row) in a group of students at L’Academie Julian, c. 1897. Gift of Jastrow and Alexandra Levin, JMM 1986.10.7a.

In September 1897 Bernstein began two years of study at the Academie Julian, one of the leading art institutes in Paris. Confident in his use of color, he took sculpture and anatomy classes to improve his figures. As testament to his endeavors, his charcoal drawing, “Sanctification of the Sabbath” was well received at the November 1898 American Art Association exhibition held in Paris. In his 1899 letter to Henrietta Szold, Bernstein wrote:

I was always known despite my little feeble figure, as the great artist. Even artists themselves considered me too high for them to envy me, so I had good friends always ready to do all they could for me to learn and inform me of what it takes to become a real artist.

The tone of Bernstein’s letter is perhaps more self-confident than cocky, as he was very aware that he would not have had the academic and financial opportunities he enjoyed without the generosity of others. His benefactors must have been charmed by Bernstein as well as impressed by his talents, as they continued to offer him support.

Even with help from his patrons, Bernstein led a precarious life. He ate little, and to keep his expenses down, he used himself as a model and frequently reused his canvases. When Bernstein’s friend from the Maryland Institute, Hans Shuler, came to study in Paris, Shuler’s mother found Bernstein nearly starving. It is not entirely surprising that Mrs. Shuler returned to Baltimore to solicit her wealthy friends for additional funds to maintain Bernstein in Europe.

Continue to Part 4: Bernstein’s Style, publishing on June 24, 2019.


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From Lithuania to Baltimore

Posted on June 3rd, 2019 by

Part 2 of “Saul Bernstein: Baltimore Artist,” written by Jobi Okin Zink, former JMM collections manager. Originally published in Generations – Winter 2001.

Details of Saul Bernstein’s life can be gleaned from a letter that he wrote to Henrietta Szold on February 6, 1899, apparently responding to inquiries about his age and early childhood. He was born in 1872 in a small town called Poswol in the Lithuanian province of Kovno. Bernstein’s father studied Talmud while his mother made a living as a tailor. Saul, too, studied Talmud at various yeshivas during his childhood, but preferred to draw. He told Szold that “I loved to draw and drew when I had time or did not have it, hence, a bang over my head with the largest five books of Moses in the place, after my masterpieces were destroyed.” Bernstein plodded along in his Talmudic education, but harbored dreams of becoming a trained artist. After receiving a letter from an uncle in Baltimore who was making a good living, Bernstein decided to come to America. Using money that his mother had saved, Saul emigrated to Baltimore in 1889.

Saul Bernstein as a peddler in West Virginia, c. 1891. Gift of Jastrow and Alexandra Lee Levin, JMM 1986.10.6.

Bernstein stayed in Baltimore for only one week before becoming a peddler, an occupation that took him from Maryland’s Eastern Shore to Cooper, West Virginia. In addition to carrying his wares in the pack on his back, Bernstein carried art supplies, including a folding easel. After a few years of hard work, he became a partner in the Silver & Bernstein Clothing Store in West Virginia. With his savings, Bernstein was able to bring his family to America, and his uncle helped them establish a residence in Baltimore.

Cabinet card of Saul Bernstein with his first paintbox, Pocahontas, VA, c. 1893.  Gift of Jastrow and Alexandra Lee Levin, JMM 1986.10.5a. Note that he is holding the palette incorrectly since he had no artistic training at this point.

Bernstein had not given up his dream of becoming an artist and, in fact, decorated his rooms in the store with his art. Most of his subjects were customers, children, or the local landscape. It was, however, his portraits of General George Washington and Czar Alexander III that in 1892 captured the attention of Louis Lutzky, a Baltimore shoe drummer for Frank and Adler, who was traveling on business. Lutzky was so impressed with Bernstein’s raw talent that he arranged for Bernstein’s raw talent that he arranged for Bernstein’s enrollment in the Maryland Institute. Grateful for the opportunity to study art, Bernstein sold his share in the partnership to raise funds for his tuition. One imagines that Bernstein must have had a charming, engaging personally, as this is only one of many instances where Bernstein relied on the kindness and help of others.

Continue to Part 3: An Artist’s Education, publishing on June 10, 2019.


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