Jehudo Meier Epstein was the oldest child in a poor family. He wrote in his autobiography: ‘I cannot say for sure in what year I was born. My father thought I was born in 1871, and my mother said 1869. So I chose the year in between, 1870, as the year of my birth’ (J.M. Epstein, 1929, Mein Weg von Ost nach West, 7). His father was a Talmudic scholar, and earned his living by teaching Hebrew to children. Since there were not many people in Sluzk who wanted to study Hebrew, the family moved to Gomel.
Having decided to be a painter, Epstein started studying at the Vilnius School of Painting, and later at the St Petersburg Imperial Academy of Arts. At the age of 18, he went to Vienna, where from 1888 to 1894 he studied at the Imperial Academy of Arts, and began working as a professor in 1924. During the First World War, he became an official war artist with the Austrian army. Afterwards, he opened a painting studio in Vienna, and visited Italy and Palestine. According to the press, Epstein ‘enjoys vast popularity and is one of the most remarkable painters in Vienna’ (1931, Kollektivausstellung Professor Jehudo Epstein, 42). In 1935, he and his wife moved to South Africa, where they lived until his death.
Epstein’s early works were based on the principle of Realism, but over time characteristics of Impressionism emerged: the paintings became more diverse in their mood and colour, they became brighter, and the brushstrokes became increasingly uninhibited. Features of Romanticism are obvious in his transcendental idealised landscapes, such as A Catholic Procession. However, his views from later periods are intensely expressive and emotional. Epstein liked to make detailed pencil sketches of architecture and landscapes. He mastered the depiction of complex multi-figure compositions, and in the process broke established rules. He also enjoyed using unexpected angles for his works. In the picture The Tailor’s Family, he depicted one person at the front with his back to the viewer, and in Prayer he left one side of the picture empty, with a large expanse of wall and just a small child in the corner, while the other characters are all squeezed into the right of the picture.
Epstein painted portraits of famous people, including Theodor Herzl. He succeeded in conveying the main external features of the sitter, as well as revealing their character. He read Hebrew scripture, and his works often feature scenes from the Old Testament and other Jewish religious texts. His childhood memories of the traditional Jewish and Christian celebrations he witnessed, prayers in the synagogue, and Catholic processions, left a deep impression on him. We can see frozen instances of life in his canvases and drawings: Jews praying at the Wailing Wall, Catholics carrying a monstrance in a solemn procession, workers unloading goods, artisans offering their wares for sale, men playing chess, drunks leaning over a table, and women immersed in their daydreams.
His artistic legacy can be found in the South African National Gallery in Cape Town, in museums in Austria and elsewhere in Western Europe, and in private galleries. Some of his works are owned by African, West European and American collectors.
Litvak Art in Private Lithuanian Collections. Compiler Gradinskaite, V. (2015). Vilnius: Lewben Art Foundation
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