The Watchmaker. Yehudah Pen, 1914. Oil on canvas. (National Art Museum of the Republic of Belarus)

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Pen, Yehudah

(1854–1937), painter, graphic artist, teacher, and founder of the “Vitebsk school.” Yehudah (Yudel, Iurii; patronymic Moiseevich, Movshevich) Pen was born in the shtetl Novo-Aleksandrovsk, Kovno guberniia (now Zarasai, Lith.), to an impoverished family. He attended a local heder but did not show much interest in his studies. Instead he devoted most of his time to drawing, for which he showed great talent. According to Pen himself, his talent found its application in the sphere of traditional Jewish art. He drew ornamental letters and captions in books, decorated Purim gragers (noisemakers), and created mizraḥ (Eastern wall) plaques. He painted portraits of shtetl dwellers and various imaginary characters, an activity that brought him great satisfaction, but made his mother very angry. At her insistence Yehudah was sent to Dinaburg (Dvinsk; now Daugavpils, Latvia) at the end of 1867, to become an apprentice house painter.

While earning his living as a house painter, Pen continued his own work. This compelled him to seek contacts outside the Hasidic milieu in which he then lived and which provided no outlet for his vocation. Pen became friendly with the secular Jewish intelligentsia in the town, which gathered in the salon of the Pompianski family. Following their advice, he went to Saint Petersburg in the summer of 1879 to take the matriculation exams at the Academy of Arts. On his second try, in 1880, he was admitted to that institution. He studied painting in the classes of Pavel Chistiakov (1832–1919), many of whose pupils became well-known Russian painters.

In 1886, after completing his studies at the Academy of Arts, Pen returned to Novo-Aleksandrovsk, but soon moved to Dinaburg and then to Riga. In 1891 he was appointed painter and teacher of drawing on the estate of Baron Nikolai Korf in Kreitsburg, located between Dinaburg and Vitebsk. After living there for five years Pen moved to Vitebsk, where in November 1897 he opened the School of Drawing and Painting, a private academy.

This school existed for more than 20 years and educated several hundred young men and women from Vitebsk and nearby communities. The vast majority of the pupils at Pen’s school were Jews, many of whom, like Pen himself, observed the religious precepts of Judaism and attended synagogue. The school was closed on the Sabbath. Pen’s leadership endowed the institution with a Jewish character and influenced the formation of the creative identities of its pupils. An exceptional teacher, Pen was able to develop the gifts of even the most modestly talented of his pupils. Many later achieved worldwide fame, including Marc Chagall, Osip Tsadkin, and El Lissitzky, all of whom remembered their first teacher with gratitude and maintained contact with him until the end of his life.

The atmosphere of Pen’s school and its Jewish nationalist orientation were to a large extent a product of Pen’s personality and the specific character of his own art, which was infused with national pathos. A large part of his work consisted of paintings based upon the everyday life of common Jewish people and psychological portraits of various types found in Russian Jewish society. Thanks to these works Pen acquired a well-deserved reputation in his lifetime as a “portrayer of the Jewish way of life.” At the same time, in his best work, Pen surmounted the sentimentality and literariness characteristic of Jewish genre painting. He painted a gallery of portraits of Jewish artisans engaging in various trades, which created a canon of images of Jewish toilers, countering contemporary prejudices that accused the Jews of being “unproductive” and leading a “parasitical” existence at the expense of their non-Jewish neighbors. Pen endowed the characters in a number of his genre works—for example, Razvod (Divorce; 1907) and Chasovshchik (The Watchmaker; 1914)—with a symbolic dimension that expressed the artist’s certainty about the eternity and unity of the Jewish people and his faith in the spirituality that constituted the basis of Jewish life. The rich symbolic content, the iconography, and the motifs of Pen’s 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 his pedagogical activity 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. He finally retired on a state pension in 1923.

During the Soviet period Pen tried to depict aspects of contemporary Soviet reality—for example, Evrei-sapozhnik, komsomolets, chitaiushchii gazetu (Jewish Shoemaker, Young Communist Leaguer, Reading a Newspaper; 1925; Belarus National Museum of Art, Minsk). Yet even in this period the artist maintained his devotion to traditional Jewish subject matter, for which he was criticized in the Soviet press. His reputation as a socially significant Russian artist nevertheless remained secure. In 1927, the thirtieth anniversary of Pen’s creative activity was celebrated at a festival held in Vitebsk, where he was awarded the title of Honored Artist of Belorussia.

Yehudah Pen met with a tragic death. On 28 February 1937 he was murdered in his home. The motives and the circumstances of this crime were never clarifed.

After the artist’s death, the Yehudah Pen Art Gallery was created in Vitebsk. Its collection consisted of an assortment of works by Pen himself and his pupils. Although the collection was evacuated to Saratov during World War II, part of it was lost. Pen’s surviving works are divided among local museums in Vitebsk and Minsk.

Suggested Reading

S. An-skii, “Pen, Iurii Moiseevich,” Evreiskaia entsiklopedia, vol. 13, col. 163 (Moscow, 1991); G. Kasovskii (Hillel Kazovsky), Khudozhniki Vitebska: Ieguda Pen i ego ucheniki (Moscow, 1991); Aleksandra Semenovna Shatskikh, Vitebsk: Zhizn’ iskusstva, 1917–1922 (Moscow, 2001).



Translated from Russian by I. Michael Aronson