Isidor Kaufmann, the most celebrated Jewish painter of the 19th Century, was born in Hungary and studied in Budapest and Vienna. On leaving the Imperial Academy of Visual Arts, he concentrated on refining his technique, achieving a mastery of line and color. From 1894, Kaufmann began to take annual summer trips through Eastern Europe’s traditional Jewish communities, his “Promised land” as described in a letter to a friend. As the scholar G. T. Natter notes: “he was attracted by regions where Jewish life and Jewish feeling vibrate most strongly” (G.T. Natter, Isidor Kaufmann, Vienna, 1995, p. 27). The impressions gathered during his many trips added depth and truth to his depictions. He absorbed the great spiritual strength of his models and was, at the same time, a keen observer of costume, interiors and architectural details.
In Rabbi with Young Student, Kaufmann reflects the pride and admiration he felt for the religious life and heritage of his Jewish faith. In this painting, Kaufmann endows the teacher with a sense of calm solemnity and wisdom. The young student is caught in a moment of animated attention, his eyes focused on the page of text before him and his brow furrowed in absorbed concentration. The urgency of the moment evokes the dedication to study and learning that was a hallmark of traditional Jewish life. The two figures are placed before a handsome bookcase, filled with beautiful leather bound volumes, which stands squarely behind them. Here we are witnessing the age-old injunction to teach and to study, to pass on the wisdom of the text from one generation to the other. The unusually large painting is further enlivened by the setting, which includes glowing brass candlesticks on the table and sconces on the wall behind. It is not unusual to find these attributes of a traditional Jewish home in Kaufmann’s paintings, but here they are offset by the richly decorated blue table cloth, embroidered with flowers in hues of pink and gold.
This magnificent and rare work, as well as the following lot, The Kabbalist, come from the celebrated collection of Oscar and Regina Gruss. Having narrowly escaped the Holocaust, the Gruss’s dedicated themselves after the war to building the finest collection of works by Jewish artists, particularly a group of “stunningly virtuosic works by Kaufmann and the historically significantly suite of paintings of Jewish life by Oppenheim” (Norman L. Kleeblatt in The Emergence of Jewish Artists in Nineteenth-Century Europe, exhibition catalogue, The Jewish Museum, November 2001–March 2002, p. 10). A photograph of the Gruss’s apartment showing The Kabbalist appears on the following page.