Sotheby’s is honored to offer this rare and important Self Portrait together with the following lot, which have been in the same private collection since the early 1920’s. Carmela Rubin has kindly provided the following in-depth essays on this lot and the following work:
This Self Portrait was painted in Romania and shipped to America along with other paintings and sculptures that Rubin intended to exhibit in New York on his first voyage to the "new world" following World War I. Rubin resided in New York for about a year (1921) and together with his colleague, the painter Arthur Kolnik, exhibited at the Anderson Galleries in a two-man show sponsored by Alfred Stieglitz who encouraged them and facilitated their path in a new and unfamiliar environment.
This Self Portrait was not illustrated in the show's catalogue and was first brought to our attention when the Rubin Museum was approached in 2003 by its owner who requested details about the artist and about the portrait itself. He had just inherited this portrait along with three other canvases (among them a gentleman's portrait also included in this sale) and a plaster sculpture from his maternal grandmother, the works all dating from 1920-22.
None of the four portraits was documented in Rubin's archive. They were gifted by the artist to his friends Isidore Heiger (an acquaintance from Romania) and his French wife Rebecca whom Rubin befriended during his stay in New York.
During the years following World War I, while still in Romania, where he was obliged to return to from Paris as a result of the outbreak of the war, Rubin painted several self portraits.
In this portrait, melancholy is intertwined with symbolism, especially in the pathetic figures of the young woman concealing her face and the scarved woman seen in the upper left corner, gently bending over her closely held child. We do not know the identities of these women, nor how they may be connected, or the nature of their relationship with the sitter. An entire narrative seems to unfold in these two background figures, deciphered through their expressive body language or the conventions and symbols in European Art of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Behind it all lies the Romantic movement's tradition of idealizing human suffering and equating the reclusive artist with a martyr. Rubin, the lone artist, reveals his artistic credo through these silent introverted beings with whose suffering he clearly identifies. At the same time it is also possible to identify in the young tormented woman the sensual temptation to which the artist struggles not to succumb. Indeed the femme fatale was a motif recurrent in literature, in theater and in the visual arts of the period.
In the foreground Rubin's lone silhouette towers over the canvas and is seen turning slightly towards the viewer looking back with protest. Wearing a black jacket which corresponds to his black hair and a colorful tie whose green/yellow hues applied with an expressive brushwork compose the texture of his facial features, he appears to be looking forward yet the memories woven into the background, refuse to let go. While they may appear on canvas as mere fragments of the past, they did not lose their emotional intensity.
Another pronounced element in the composition is the sitter's right hand whose elongated fingers touch his garment while hovering around his heart defensively, a detail which introduces into the composition Viennese Expressionism, most particularly the hands of Egon Schiele's melancholic protagonists. The latter's art was most probably brought to Rubin's attention by his peer, Arthur Kolnik who had studied in Vienna.
This is a self portrait reverberating the spirit of the artist as an ascetic prophet in the Romantic tradition, with an elegant European image that would be later, following his immigration to Palestine, replaced by a freer more optimistic image of himself anchored in the new homeland.