Editor: Fran Bock

This article is an updated and revised version of the article on Yehuda Pen originally posted in September 2002.

We thank Vitaly Charny for his continuing series of articles about the Jews of Belarus and for his permission to publish this article here.

Copyright © 2002 Belarus SIG and Vitaly Charny

Reprinting or copying of this article is not allowed without prior permission from the copyrightholders.

Yehuda M. Pen and his Disciples

of the Vitebsk Art School

by Vitaly Charny

Abram Brazer (1892-1942), Portrait of Yehuda Pen


"I learned about Pen when I was riding on a streetcar. It was crossing the Cathedral Square and I saw a banner - white letters on blue: Artist Pen's School. 'What a cultured city is our Vitebsk,' I thought."



Let's start the story with the name of the Jewish artist that would first come to mind for people around the world with minimum knowledge of Art History - Marc Chagall. It is hard to tell what would have happened to Chagall, had he not one day come across the banner reading "Artist Pen's School of Drawing and Painting."

Congratulating Pen on his career anniversary in autumn 1921, Chagall wrote: "I recall how, as a boy, I climbed the steps of your studio. And the tremor with which I awaited you: you were to decide my fate in my mother's presence. I know how many other young boys in Vitebsk and the entire gubernia had their fates decided by you. For dozens of years your studio was the first to lure people in town... You have trained a vast generation of Jewish artists."

Solomon Yudovin (1892-1954), St. Anthony Cathedral

Today Pen is known almost exclusively as the first teacher of his distinguished disciples, including such as Ossip Zadkine (see below), Lazar Lissitzky, Oscar Meshchaninov, Abel Pan (Pfeffennan), Solomon Yudovin (see above) and, primarily, Marc Chagall - the few artists, that is, whose life stories were successful. The works of Pen, as well as those of the "vast generation of Jewish artists" he trained, remain virtually unknown even to experts. Pen's artistic heritage is rather fragmentary - the 200 works of his which have survived are kept, for the most part, in Vitebsk and Minsk museums, and represent but a fraction of what was left by the artist.

Many of his students perished in the Holocaust, in battles of WWII and in the Gulag. Most of their works must have been lost irretrievably during that period. The few surviving pieces are gathering dust and decaying in remote storerooms of provincial museums. The early works of the Vitebsk period of Pen and Zadkine, to name but a few, are still out of reach and therefore unstudied.

The history of the Vitebsk School, its peculiarities and poetics, can hardly be understood without passing judgment on the personality of its founder, Yehuda Pen, as a certain historical-cultural phenomenon. He represented a stereotypical characteristic of the Russian Jewish intelligentsia of the late 19th century.

Gogol Street in Vitebsk in the early 20th century. In the white house on the right was Pen's school and apartment

Pen's life story was in many ways typical of nearly all Jewish artists of his generation in Russia. He was born into a big and poor family in the small township of Novo-Alexandrovsk (now Zarasai, Lithuania) on May 24 (June 5 by the Gregorian calendar),1854. He was only four years old when his father died. Soon his mother sent him to a cheder, where the little boy displayed a gift for drawing. He avidly devoted himself to it, drawing letters in books, coloring Purim rattles, making mizrachim and taking an order for the ornamental decoration of the cover page of the Pinkos for the local Jewish community. The young artist also drew portraits of local people, generals and mounted Cossacks, giving preference to that type of "art". His passion for drawing met with no approval or support from the family; and his mother, despairing of her son's ever doing well, left him to his own devices. Meanwhile, a distant relation of theirs, who had a small business making signboards and painting parquet floors in the town of Dvinsk (Daugavpils, Latvia) not far from Novo-Alexandrovsk, heard about the gifted child. In late 1867, Yehuda Pen left for Dvinsk, where become an apprentice to a housepainter, yet had the good fortune to be able to pursue his passion for art. He gained some experience, and his master soon began entrusting him with the more important and demanding orders.

In Dvinsk, Pen also acquainted himself with the Pumpiansky family, whose house was a center of cultural life in the town. On one occasion in that hospitable place, Pen met Boruch Girshovich, a student on vacation from St.Petersburg's Academy of Arts, who spoke favorably of Pen's work and assured Pen that he was capable of entering the Academy of Arts. A little over twenty at the time, Pen was devout, wore traditional Jewish clothes and spoke next to no Russian. Nevertheless he dreamed of becoming a professionally trained artist, and the prohibition to write and draw on Saturdays was the only thing that interfered with his dreams. All doubts were finally cast away when he received a letter from Girshovich in the summer of 1879; and he left for St.Petersburg to take entrance examinations for the Academy of Arts.

Yehuda Pen (1854-1937); Portrait of Marc Chagall, 1907

Initially, he was not successful. He failed the entrance exams, but decided to stay in the capital and try again. He made that decision despite the fact that as a Jew, devoid of the "right of residence," he could live in St.Petersburg only illegally, constantly paying a "tribute" to yard-keepers lest they should inform the police. However, for twelve months he could visit the Hermitage Museum and the Academy copy room, polishing his drawing skills and preparing for the exam. Girshovich and Asknasii, already fairly well known at that time, offered their help and in 1880 Pen became an Academy student. Among fellow-freshmen that year were Maimon and Mane, as well as Mordecai Ioffe (b. 1864, last record dated 1924), who had taken drawing lessons from Pen in Dvinsk.

There were several Jews among the Academy of Arts students in the early 1880's. Some of them, e.g. Ilya Ginzburg (1859-1939), Moses Maimon and Maria Dillon (1858-1932), were to gain celebrity in their time. The authorities of Russian higher educational establishments were, as a rule, suspicious of Jewish students, and anti-Semitism was fairly widespread among students themselves. That made Jewish students stick together and keep to themselves. They all knew each other. Pen soon became acquainted with other Jewish students at the Academy and became privy to the problems assailing young Jewish artists at that period.

At that time, there were factors that could not but shatter their serenely idyllic estheticism. Under Tsar Alexander III, Russian reality itself, with its waves of pogroms, tougher anti-Jewish legislation and growing everyday anti-Semitism, made the Jewish intelligentsia think critically of its former attitude toward and ideas of their national and cultural development.

P.P.Chistyakov (1832 -1919), who taught Pen, is known not only as a remarkable Russian artist but also as a talented educator. For twenty years, from 1872 to 1892, he was an assistant professor of painting at the Academy of Arts, and schooled Ilya Repin, Isaac Asknasii, Mikhail Vrubel, Valenlin Serov and Vasily Surikov, all of whom always spoke of their instructor with love and respect. His educational system went far beyond the framework of academic doctrine and must be considered innovative for his time. Though he sternly insisted on his students perfecting their technical mastery, as a true educator Chistyakov saw his main task as providing conditions favorable for the development of creative individuality, and encouraged any, even the most modest talent. An atmosphere of friendliness and creativity reigned supreme in his studio, a favorable contrast to many things characteristic of the Academy.

Pen graduated from the landscape painting class in 1885 with another Silver Medal. In October 1885 he took an exam presenting his summer works, and was soon given the diploma of an extra class artist. He attended the Academy for another year, completing the scholarly course in 1886. He returned to Novo-Alexandrovsk, then moved to Dvinsk in search of work and finally to Riga. There he met Baron N. N. Korf, who invited the artist to work on his estate outside of Kreizburg, a township halfway between Vitebsk and Dvinsk. Pen recalled that the local Jews had received his arrival at the estate with great enthusiasm, as they were convinced that he was Baron Girsch of Austria who had come to buy them out and send them to Argentina.

It can be surmised that Pen came to Kreizburg in 1891 and stayed there for five years. Though he personally considered those years as lost because he drew mostly portraits from photographs, it was still an important period in the artist's life. In the year of Pen's arrival at the Baron's estate, Ilya Repin, a leading figure of Russian realistic art at the turn of the century, bought the Zdravnevo estate outside Vitebsk. He moved there with his family in May 1892 and lived there, except during the winters, until 1896.

Repin (see below) had met Pen at the Academy of Arts and had spoken favorably of his younger colleague's works. Pen visited Zdravnevo on many occasions and received visits from Repin in turn. The landscape artist Yuri Klever (1850-1924), who was renown at that time and also a graduate of the St. Petersburg Academy, lived in neighboring Vitebsk. Zdravnevo, where many artists came, including those from Vitebsk to visit Repin, was make new friends among his contemporaries. Thus, living in Kreizburg, he was in no way secluded from news of artistic life nor deprived of "professional" contacts. On the contrary, Pen could establish business contacts in Vitebsk in those years and find patrons among the local Jewish bourgeoisie.

Ilya Repin mansion in Zdravnevo, and his picture "A Belorussian Man"

Pen's Vitebsk friends and benefactors urged him to come to Vitebsk, promising their help in opening a private drawing school, a long time dream of his. They made efforts to obtain permission from the governor and central authorities. The chance to open a school that could guarantee him a stable income and normal working conditions proved for Pen a decisive argument in favor of moving to Vitebsk. In the late 19th century, Vitebsk was a major town in Northwestern Russia and the center of a vast economically developed gubernia. It had regular railway communications with Vilno, Riga, Kovno, Mogilev and St.Petersburg. Like other provincial centers of Russia at the turn of the century, Vitebsk boasted a vigorous cultural life, hardly inferior to that of the capital. Theater companies regularly came on tours and famous musicians gave concerts there.

Vitebsk even had its own symphony orchestra that performed in Vilno and Riga, as well as at home. The Vitebsk professionals were mostly Jewish. In short, Pen found Vitebsk to be a major cultural center where he was eagerly awaited. He was offered a flat in one of the central streets, where he organized a studio in one of the rooms and opened his School of Drawing and Painting in November 1897. It seems that his School was the first, and for some time, the only Jewish art school. Pen was hardly pursuing any special program of national artistic training. In the late 19th century, little thought was given to the need for such a program. On September 17, 1896, the Vitebskie Gubernskie Novosti (Vitebsk Gubernia News) carried Pen's advertisement that his School offered a course in drawing geometric figures, ornaments, plaster statues and nature and open-air paintings.

Yehuda Pen, "Vitebsk Street"

Pen's School was admittedly Jewish for natural reasons: in the late 19th century, Jews accounted for over 52 percent of the town's population, and the overwhelming majority of Pen's students were Jewish. Many of them spoke no Russian and attended yeshivas, Jewish religious schools. Pen personally observed Judaic commandments and went to the synagogue. No classes were held at his School on Saturdays.

Throughout his life Pen considered himself a "Jewish artist", and that was how those around him saw him. He passed that self-identification onto many of his students, and the idea was perhaps most aptly expressed by Marc Chagall, who said: "Had I not been a Jew (the way I see it), I would not have been an artist, or else I would have been an entirely different artist."

Marc Chagall (1887-1985), "Over The Town"

Pen took a serious attitude toward the Jewish way of life he portrayed. Indeed, the literal, almost "ethnographic" documentary characteristic of those painters can be traced in Pen's better known pictures: Divorce 1907; Old Woman with a Book (Taitch Humesh), the 1900's; Sabbath Meal, the 1920's, and other works. And still, there is only superficial similarity: in his best works Pen went far beyond documenting trivial scenes of Jewish life to tackle much more monumental tasks. In general, few of his works can be termed as purely genre paintings.

The everyday reality of life is given symbolic dimension, so that the Jewish way of life and its attributes are transformed in Pen's paintings into a means of expressing the spiritual essence of the Jewish people, seen by the artist as something constant.

Pen had special interest in old European paintings and a love for Rembrandt. It was not by chance that at the first art exhibition in Vitebsk in 1899 Pen displayed, among his other works, a painstakingly executed copy of Rembrandt's Menashe ben Israel (see below).

However, what mattered the most to Pen was the fact that Rembrandt was not merely a great master who could teach him the secrets of art, but first and foremost, an artist who painted Jews. This fact is of paramount importance because it served for Pen as meaning in his creative quests and desire to express the national tradition. European genre painting never overshadowed Pen's principal goal - he depicted the Jewish mode of life, his characters read Jewish books and papers, and he looked for and found Rembrandtesque types in the local ethnographic environment.

An analysis of the characteristic features of the Vitebsk School as a whole shows that Pen's portraits form, if not an integral iconographic system, then at least a type of iconography that was reproduced by his disciples and associates, such as Chagall, Axelrod, Yakerson, Yudovin and even Brazer. Though the latter never formally studied under Pen, he worked with him in Vitebsk and indisputably came under his influence.

Pen was fond of painting the town and its environs and nurtured that love in his students. He used to say, "You see. I love the portrait-like nature of towns. Every town should have its own portraits, and our Vitebsk here has its own images that distinguish it from all other towns. Take a walk through the environs of Vitebsk. Let's take, for instance, Markovshchina. It is a wonderful place where one can have one's fill of fresh air and cleanse one's blood enough to make a jolly landscape the next day. That air, I tell you, will itself settle down on your canvas."

Pen worked in the open air with his students, and many of them, even when they were mature artists (Chagall in particular), willingly accompanied their teacher to draw landscapes. That is why their landscapes show the same sights of Vitebsk, painted from the places to which Pen had brought them, and their townscapes were often arranged in keeping with the principles characteristic of Pen's landscape painting.

Marc Chagall, "Walk"

Pen's private school existed until Marc Chagall opened the Public Higher School of Art in 1918. He invited his first teacher to head one of the studios in it. After the Higher School became an institute, Pen, in addition to teaching, served as vice-rector. Students, many of whom often came to his classes, invariably treated Pen with love and respect. Unable to accept methods of art education and practices introduced by the new School authorities after Chagall's departure, Pen was forced to leave that educational establishment together with Brazer, Minin and Yudovin, in 1923, and retired on pension. That fact, however, had little effect on his authority and popularity. In 1927, his thirtieth anniversary of work in Vitebsk was officially celebrated in the town and his home continued to attract young artist and art lovers. People came to his place to see the pictures that completely covered the walls (Pen painted till his last days), to seek advice and to visit the most respected and kindhearted Friend.

Because of Pen's school's fame and success of his pupils, Vitebsk attracted many great artists in the early 1900s who come to work in the town and teach at the school. Among them were Kazimir Malevich, Robert Falk, El (Lazar) Lisitsky, Mstislav Dobuzhinsky, Ivan Puni, David Yakerson and many others.

In the early hours of March 2, 1937, Yehuda Pen was murdered in his home. The motives of that wanton murder have remained obscure to this day, however it coincided with the tide of Stalin terror that swamped the country during those years. But the history of the Vitebsk School did not end with Pen's death. His disciples, no matter how they might have distanced themselves from the artistic views of their first teacher, sooner or later reverted to them and returned to Vitebsk, the town of their youth, which in their minds epitomized a harmoniously integral world.

Marc Chagall, "Time Has Only One Wing"

Chagall might have foreseen all that when he wrote to Pen: "We, score of your first students, will have a special memory of you. We are not blind. No matter what extremity may hurl us in a direction far away from you in the field of art, your image of an honest master-artist and the first teacher is still great. I love you for that."