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Rose Mary
By Rosemary McKittrick
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"The Antiquarian,” oil on panel; circa 1880s; 14 3/8 inches by 18 ¾ inches sold for $772,000. Photo courtesy of Sotheby's.
Isidor Kaufmann rarely painted 19th century Jews in the threadbare clothing they wore all week. He painted them in their Sabbath finery.

He painted their hope and heritage. He painted their humanity. For that he is called the most important Jewish genre painter.

With a simple brushstroke Kaufmann became the storyteller for traditional ways of life among 19th century Eastern European Jews. His subjects came from the ghettoes of Poland and Hungary and the slums of Silesia. His subjects were celebrated rabbis and nameless children.

As Jews scattered all over the world many no longer had contact with their rabbis. Visual images like lithographs and paintings became all the more important. The picture of a rabbi on the wall was a stand-in.

After the highly respected Rabbi Yehuda Aszod died in Hungary in 1866 a scandal broke out. His followers were so intent on preserving his memory, they propped him up on a chair with a book and took his photograph. The likeness was reproduced and widely circulated. That’s how sacred visual imagery was, even then.

As a Jewish portrait and genre painter, not much escaped Isidor Kaufmann.

He was born in Hungary in 1853 and began painting at age 14. In 1875, he went to study in Budapest at the National Academy of Art. In 1876, he settled in Vienna and became a pupil of the portrait-painter Aigner and ultimately entered the Vienna Academy.

Throughout his career, Kaufmann scoured Jewish towns and villages for folk art, customs and portraits to sketch. He captured the struggles of the Jewish people with straightforward compassion and mind-boggling detail.

Never sentimental, his depictions were true to life. They’re still being used today to recall the day-to-day existence of European Jews and Hassidic life of the era.

No painting captures Kaufmann’s moods more than his 1880s oil, “The Antiquarian.”

The aging antique dealer in this painting sits in his chair lost in thought, hands folded, head bowed. Heaviness seems to enclose him and everything around him.

He sits in a room with planked floors, a wooden table and a tattered trunk stacked high with boots and clothes. It’s as though Kaufmann froze time to capture a solitary moment from another time in history.

At first glance, the room seems messy. A closer look reveals surprising focus in the objects pictured.

The Biedermeier-style mantelpiece clock, the writing desk, the gold-framed portrait and the Japanese screen all bring to mind a connoisseur. Kaufmann was known for painting one corner in a room. In this oil, the whole room is laid out before us. It’s a colossal study of 19th century Eastern European Jewish life.

On Dec. 13, 2007, Sotheby’s, New York, offered the Kaufmann painting discussed in its Important Judaica auction including property of the Jewish community of Amsterdam. The 14 3/8 inch by 18 ¾ inch work of art sold for $772,000.

Here are some current values for other works by Kaufmann.

Isidor Kaufmann

Portrait of a Woman; bears an expression of intellectual engagement; signed; oil on canvas; 16 5/8 inches by 13 3/8 inches; $25,200.

Portrait of a Hassidic Man; oil on canvas; signed; 14 ½ inches by 11 ¾ inches; $33,000.

Courthouse Waiting Room; pictures five adults, some reading, some sitting; oil on panel; circa 1886-1887; signed; 15 ½ inches by 19 ¾ inches; $84,000.

A Young Student Reading; innocence personified, oil on panel; signed; 8 ¼ inches by 6 5/8 inches; $96,000.

Portrait of a Man; captures a moment of quiet pleasure; oil on panel; signed; 9 ¼ inches by 7 ¼ inches; $102,000.

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