Today in Yiddishkayt… June 5
Birthday of Yehuda Pen, Artist
Yehuda (Yudl) Pen was born on May 24 (June 5th Old style) 1854 in Novo Alexandrovsk, known in Yiddish as עזערעני (today: Zarasai, Lithuania). From an early age, he showed great interest and talent in drawing, and spent much of his time creating traditional Jewish art. At the end of 1867, his mother sent him to Dvinsk, דענענבורג in Yiddish, (today: Daugavpils, Latvia) to become an apprentice house painter. In 1879 Pen moved to Saint Petersburg to follow his dream of becoming an artist, and in 1880 he was admitted to the Academy of Arts. There, he studied painting under Pavel Chistiakov, who taught many well-known Russian painters.
After completing his studies in 1886, Pen moved back to Novo Alexandrovsk, Dvinsk, and then to Riga. In 1891 he was hired to paint and teach drawing on the estate of Baron Nikolai Korf in Kreitsburg. He spent five years there and then relocated to Vitebsk in 1897. In November of that year he opened the School of Drawing and Painting. The school functioned for more than 20 years and educated several hundred young artists, including Ilya Mazel, Yefim Minin, Oskar Meshchaninov, Marc Chagall, Ossip Zadkine, and El Lissitzky.
Pen’s paintings primarily consisted of images from everyday Jewish life. Some of his best known work comes from a gallery of portraits of Jewish artisans engaging in various trades. His paintings of Jewish toilers played an important role in countering contemporary prejudices regarding Jewish productivity. The rich symbolism present in his genre paintings, as well as certain compositional techniques of his landscape paintings, were continued in the works of his pupils and became the distinguishing traits of the “Vitebsk school.”
Pen continued teaching even after his school was closed. From 1918–1923 he headed one of the studios at the People’s School of Art organized by Marc Chagall. In 1927, a festival was held in Vitebsk to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the School of Drawing and Painting. At this celebration, Pen was awarded the title of Honored Artist of Belorussia. On February 28, 1937, Pen was murdered in his home. The motives and the circumstances of his death were never clarified. After his death, the Yehudah Pen Art Gallery was created in Vitebsk. Its collection consisted of an assortment of works by Pen himself, as well as his pupils. The collection was evacuated to Saratov during the war, however part of it was lost. Today, Pen’s surviving works are divided among local museums in Vitebsk and Minsk.
Here is a slideshow of pictures by Yehuda Pen, set to music by The Barry Sisters.