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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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From the Collection: Saul Bernstein, Baltimore Artist

Posted on May 27th, 2019 by

Written by Jobi Okin Zink, former JMM collections manager. Originally published in Generations – Winter 2001.

Visitors to Framing the Collections [on view May 6, 2001 – July 31, 2002], an exhibition that highlights the diverse holdings of the Jewish Museum of Maryland, might not immediately notice the self-portrait of artist Saul Bernstein (1872 – 1905). It is a small painting in a simple frame nestled among dozens of other portraits hung salon-style along the gallery walls. Many of its neighbors are large, imposing, and ornately framed; however, visitors who take time to step close to the artist’s self-portrait will find themselves intrigued by the depth and complexity of Bernstein’s expression.

“Self Portrait” by Saul Bernstein, 1905. Gift of Jastrow and Alexandra Lee Levin, JMM 1986.10.1

Bernstein’s self-portrait, reminiscent of a 17th-century Dutch miniature, demonstrates his ability to paint a variety of textures in great detail. The small 5 ½ inch x 4 ¼ inch canvas draws the visitor close to the painting, creating an intimate link between sitter and viewer. Bernstein looks directly at the viewer from behind his small round glasses. His direct gaze captures and holds attention, challenging the viewer to understand who the artist was and what he was thinking. From the portrait alone, the Museum visitor can discern that Bernstein was well-dressed without being showy, honest, and forthright. The artist captures a hint of reflection across his wire-frame glasses and the full, wiry texture of his moustache, which is just a shade more golden than his light brown hair. The crisp white collar of Bernstein’s shirt contrasts with the soft wool of his vest and dimpled hat. His cheeks are flushed, but he has remained true to himself by adding the birth mark to his cheek. The thirty-three year old Bernstein added an inscription to the upper right corner of his self-portrait, “to my dear friend, Miss Henrietta Szold,” and signed his full name and the date, May 25, 1905.

Henrietta Szold was one of Bernstein’s greatest supporters, introducing his works to leading Baltimore art patrons and collectors. This painting was intended to be a gift from a grateful artist to his generous benefactor, but the artist died before it could be presented. Bernstein’s widow gave the painting to Miss Szold, who kept it in her collection for the rest of her life. It is only when we learn that Bernstein died an apparent suicide only two weeks after completing his portrait that the painting suggests hidden meanings. Is there a desperate plea in his intense gaze? Is Bernstein trying to convey a coded message?

Continue with Part 2: From Lithuania to Baltimore, publishing on June 3, 2019.

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