From Galicia to Baltimore

Posted on July 8th, 2019 by

Part 6 of “Saul Bernstein: Baltimore Artist,” written by Jobi Okin Zink, former JMM collections manager. Originally published in Generations – Winter 2001.

Bernstein’s yearning to paint the intellect and passions of the Jewish people led him to travel again. His initial intention was to go to Germany; however, he went instead to Poland. Letters to Szold indicate that Bernstein was extremely disappointed when he reached Galicia in July 1902 only to find that local residents were unwilling to pose for him. Bernstein created a clay model of a “Jew-type” and used this to inform many of his works. Surviving photographs illustrate how similar the model head was to the profile he painted in “The Talmudist.”

Photo of the “Plaster Head of Old Cracow Jew” by Saul Bernstein, 1903. Gift of Jastrow and Alexandra Lee Levin, JMM 1986.10.16

In August 1902, Bernstein spent the Sabbath with a Galician Jewish family in their home. It is possible that it is this interior that he depicted in an untitled painting that was added to the Museum collection in 1999, although it has also been suggested that the room is from a Baltimore synagogue. This canvas is difficult to decipher, due to the combination of its dark palette and the high sheen of its varnish. On the left side one can see a high arched window, a lectern covered with a greenish-gold cloth with a silver candlestick on the corner, and high-backed chair. Above the chair hangs a framed Hebrew text. The right side of the canvas is virtually unintelligible. Unlike many of his Dutch paintings, this canvas does not include any people.

Cabinet card of Saul Bernstein in Cracow, 1902. Gift of Jastrow and Alexandra Levin, JMM 1986.10.9a.

Bernstein remained in Galicia for eight months before homesickness forced him to return to his family in Baltimore in March 1903. Bernstein became reacquainted with his friend from the Baltimore Zionist Association, Senior Abel, and Abel’s sister, Jeanetta, who had first caught Bernstein’s attention in 1897. On August 3, 1903 Saul and Jennie were married, despite Henrietta Szold’s exhortations to wait until he was more financially stable. The Bernsteins rented a house at 1143 East Baltimore Street, where the artist began a very productive period, working in his upstairs studio.

(Left) Jenny Abel Bernstein, n.d. Gift of Jastrow and Alexandra Levin, JMM 1986.10.10b. (Right) Photo of “Portrait of Jenny,” painted by Saul Bernstein, 1904. Gift of Jastrow and Alexandra Levin, JMM 1986.10.21.

Bernstein seems to have recovered from his confessed inability to complete paintings. His letters to Henrietta Szold and his brother Ben are positive and uplifting, as Bernstein had been offered money for several of his works and received commissions to execute portraits for several wealthy patrons. He produced many works, including a drawing and a painting of a young boy from East Baltimore, both of which are now in the Museum collection. In his drawing, Bernstein captures in charcoal and pastels the boy’s despair and reflects on the plight of America’s downtrodden.

Saul and Jenny in the Blue Ridge Mountains, c. 1904. Gift of Peter Bernstein, JMM CP 25.2012.2.

Saul and Jennie were expecting the birth of their first child when Bernstein signed his self-portrait on May 25, 1905. Three days later, Bernstein drank a deadly mix of corrosive sublimate and alcohol. He was taken to Johns Hopkins Hospital where his stomach was pumped. He was released six days later but died at home on June 9, 1905. Bernstein’s widow noted that her husband had been in good spirits, and his obituary does not say whether Bernstein’s death was a suicide or an accident.

Baltimore newspapers “erupted with a rash of Bernstein editorials,” noting that Baltimore had lost one of its most gifted artists. Bernstein’s friends and fellow artists in the Charcoal Club mounted a retrospective memorial exhibit in January 1906, with the proceeds going to help Jennie establish a home for herself and her young son who was born in October. Jennie sent Saul Bernstein’s final painting to Henrietta Szold with a letter thanking Szold for her friendship. The self-portrait that we see today, painted on the eve of Bernstein’s death, remains something of a puzzle. The artist’s passion and determination are evident, but so, perhaps, are his uncertainties and frustrations. We can only wonder if Bernstein’s haunting self-portrait holds any clues to his untimely, tragic death.

~The End~

Quotes from original letters are taken from “The Tragic Career of a Talented Young Baltimore Artist” by Alexandra Lee Levin, Sunday Sun Magazine, March 13, 1966 and from the Saul Bernstein Papers at the Jewish Museum of Maryland.

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Bernstein and Szold

Posted on July 1st, 2019 by

Part 5 of “Saul Bernstein: Baltimore Artist,” written by Jobi Okin Zink, former JMM collections manager. Originally published in Generations – Winter 2001.

“Woman in a Chair” by Saul Bernstein, 1901. Museum Purchase, JMM 1990.109.1

On September 22, 1901 Bernstein wrote to Szold, “Mr. Whistler is the artist whose harmonious tones appeal to me.” Bernstein’s canvas from 1901, “Woman in a Chair” brings to mind one of Whistler’s most noted works, “Arrangement in Gray and Black,” commonly referred to as “Whistler’s Mother.” Bernstein’s painting features the profile of a woman sitting in the chair, facing left, her hair tied back, peeling a basket of apples. Instead of grays, Bernstein works with a palette of rich chocolate browns, adding a touch of red to the woman’s scarf. Although the sitter’s hands are a bit undefined and attenuated, Bernstein excels at rendering the hard metal surface of the knife that peeks over the edge of the apple in the woman’s hand. Flecks of red and gold in the basket suggest that it is filled with apples.

In April of 1901 Miss Szold asked Bernstein to send to her as many of his paintings and sketches as he could. Bernstein expressed distress over this request because many of his works were in progress. His method was to return repeatedly to his canvases to rework entire portions. Nevertheless, in November 1901, Szold held a small exhibition of nearly fifty paintings and studies by Bernstein, to generate more funds for the struggling artist. Szold kept a meticulous record of the works sold, together with their prices. Gertrude Stein, who was yet two years away from collecting in Paris, bought two works, as did Etta and Claribel Cone. Other works were bought by “notable Baltimore names – Hutzler, Sonneborn, Gutman, Bamburger, Levy, Frank, Keyser, Gottlieb, Bachrach, Adler, Dalsheimer, Strouse, Hershey, Straus, Kemper, Federleicht, Billstein, Oberman, Preiss and Friedenwald.” The funds raised through this sale enabled Bernstein to return to his artistic studies at the Academie in Paris in 1902.

Charcoal sketch, self portrait. Drawn on reverse of cover page to “A Century of Jewish Thought” by Henrietta Szold. Gift of Peter Bernstein, JMM 2008.104.7.

Bernstein continued to do well professionally in Paris, and two of his Dutch interior works, “An Evening Chat” and “The Thrifty Housewife/The Knitter” were accepted for the prestigious Paris Salon in 1902. After the exhibition opening, he wrote to Henrietta Szold, “I note that in the criticism of my work, some people speak of ‘strong character and virility of execution,’ others of ‘rare delicacy and intimate sentiment,’ a combination of bold contrasts that amuses me and makes me happy.” He also complained to Szold, “I hear nothing but Salon, Salon…” and expressed his desire to find Jewish models.

Continue to Part 6: From Galicia to Baltimore, publishing on July 8, 2019.


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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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