A Mirror of Jewish Life: Masterpieces by Isidor Kaufmann
Selling Exhibition: 13–23 December 2020 • New York

I n the Fall of 1984 while sitting in my Sotheby’s office, our registrar handed me a small panel by Isidor Kaufmann. Although it was barely 6 by 8 inches in scale, it had the power of a painting multiple times that size. This charming and sensitive picture, The Son of the Miracle-Working Rabbi of Belz, evoked tremendous emotion and it was the very moment that my obsession, fascination and love of the artist began. I saw in Kaufmann an artist that linked so many aspects of my life and I wanted to learn more about his work and to connect collectors with the best examples.

By chance, it was not long after this that I received a call from Helen Kaufmann who mentioned that her grandfather was Isidor Kaufmann and that she had a number of his works that she needed appraised. As it turned out, she lived just across the street from my then apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side - clearly this was meant to be (it was bashert)! Helen had a lovely collection of the artist’s works including some oil sketches that showed his technique. She and I became friends and upon her death in 2004, I was tasked with calling the Jewish Museum in New York to let them know of the sad news and to tell them that she had generously donated her collection to them.

My desire to champion Kaufmann reached its pinnacle when the curator Tobias Natter, contacted me to assist with his landmark exhibition of the artist’s work held in Vienna in 1995. Working together, I helped secure many of the key works for the exhibition including the Son of the Miracle-Working Rabbi of Belz which appeared on the cover of the exquisite exhibition catalogue. Indeed, many of the works in our exhibition today were included in this seminal show.

As a painter, Kaufmann was technically brilliant and had an ability to capture his subjects’ moods and personalities. He was exceptionally skilled at creating wonderfully tactile and flawless surfaces using fine wood panels and painting with an extremely thin brush. In fact, the works in this exhibition not only represent the captivating emotional range of the artist but also show his technical mastery.

Although our opening coincides with Chanukah, one of the masterworks we are showing is a painting titled Sukkot, along with a rare pencil study for the work that reveals the artist’s careful and studied approach to each of his finished paintings. Kaufmann’s reverence for tradition, religious piety and the physical objects related to the religious service is manifested in the repeated use of important symbols in many of these works. Interior of a Synagogue not only depicts the peace of an empty sanctuary as the quiet solitude of the space magnifies its holy nature, but also exemplifies the artist’s mastery of technique. Kaufmann had a deep connection with both the spiritual and secular life of Jews in the 19th Century and his lively painting Chess Players explores the humorous side of the artist’s avid interest in Eastern European Jewish identity.

Most of the works exhibited were carefully curated and are from a private collection and were, until recently, on long term loan to The Israel Museum in Jerusalem, while another has been an important part of an American family’s collection.

Though from diverse sources, together these masterful compositions reflect Kaufmann’s heritage. It is clear that from the moment they left his studio a century ago and through today they continue to have a profound effect on their audience.

Benjamin Doller
Chairman, Americas

Schedule an Appointment

Following the guidelines for the Phase Four reopening of Manhattan, we are able to accommodate clients in our building by appointment only. The exhibition will open on 13 December and will close on 23 December at 5PM. To schedule an appointment please contact appointmentsNY@sothebys.com or +1 212 606 7171. You can read more about our safety requirements here.

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