Friday Evening. Izidor Kaufmann, 1897–1898. Oil on canvas. The Jewish Museum, New York. (Jewish Museum/Art Resource, NY)

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Kaufmann, Izidor

(1853–1921), painter. Izidor Kaufmann was born in Arad (today in Romania), a frontier fortress of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, where his father served as captain of a Hungarian regiment. While working as a bank clerk in 1874, Kaufmann created his first painting—a head of Moses—and began to study art, first at the Budapest State School of Drawing and from 1875 at the Vienna Academy of Visual Arts. Among his early genre scenes, which from 1886 he successfully exhibited in Vienna, Berlin, and Munich, were scenes of Jewish life. Die Schachspieler (Chess Players), Das Examen oder Der Besuch des Rabbi (The Exam, or The Rabbi’s Visit), Isaak the Junk Dealer, Kaufmännischer Untericht (Commercial Instruction), and Geschäftsgeheimnis (Business Secret)—created between 1886 and 1893—depict traditional Jews in a humorous and sympathetic light.

Beginning in 1894, Kaufmann traveled outside Vienna to discover what he considered to be more authentic Jewish life. His quest led him to towns in Hungary, Moravia, Slovakia, Galicia, Ukraine, and Russian Poland, where local Jewish figures—Hasidim, Talmudic scholars, and rabbis—became a rich source of artistic inspiration. He observed their traditional way of life, provincial houses, ceremonial objects, and synagogues, and painted their world nostalgically, as if it had hardly been touched by modernization. Kaufmann thus strove to reveal what he considered to be the inner spirit of East European Jews. His paintings were popular among urbanized, bourgeois Jews of Central Europe, and especially Vienna.

Kaufmann’s portraits of religious Jewish men and women, dressed in festive clothes, at study or at prayer—for example, Sohn des Wunderrabbi von N . . . (Son of the Miracle-Working Rabbi of N . . . ; 1897–1898), Schwierige Talmudstelle (A Difficult Passage in the Talmud; ca. 1902–1903); Von des Hohenpriesters Stamme (Of the High Priest’s Tribe; 1902–1903), Das stille Gebet oder Freitag Abend (Silent Prayer or Friday Evening; 1897–1898), and Das Segnen der Sabbathkerzen (Candlelighting; n.d., first published 1925)—offer romantic images of Jewish life; these artworks show no evidence of the era’s poverty and antisemitism. Among his most famous paintings is Hearken Israel, which shows men and boys at prayer in a synagogue, each figure a noble individual portrait with his own gestures and emotions, immersed in a world of devotion. The paintings stemming from his study trips were also praised by non-Jews. Thus, Sabbath won prizes in Vienna and Munich (1897) and Kaufmann was awarded a Silver Medal at the 1900 Paris International Exhibition.

Kaufmann’s desire to recreate the vanishing world of East European Jewry, avoiding stereotypes through carefully chosen, realistic details, led him in 1899 to create a “Sabbath Room” exhibit at the Viennese Jewish Museum. Furnished with artifacts collected on his trips, the room offered an imaginative reconstruction of an East European interior and inspired similar creations in other Jewish museums in Europe. In 1925, four years after Kaufmann’s death, an assortment of his paintings was reproduced and published in an album. His work continues to be reproduced in numerous copies and postcards.

Suggested Reading

Richard I. Cohen, Jewish Icons: Art and Society in Modern Europe (Berkeley, 1998); Susan Tumarkin Goodman, ed., The Emergence of Jewish Artists in Nineteenth-Century Europe (New York, 2001); Tobias Günter (G. Tobias) Natter, ed., Rabbiner, Bocher, Talmudschüler: Bilder des Wiener Malers, Isidor Kaufmann, 1853–1921 (Vienna, 1995), in German and English.