A portrait in a self-portrait. Samuel Finkelstein

The “Salvaged. Collection of paintings, drawings, sculptures from the collections of the Jewish Historical Institute.” Exhibition includes a few paintings of the talented artist Samuel Finkelstein (1891 in Sandomierz — 1942 in Treblinka?). Two among them hold a special place on the exhibition (and in his overall work): a self-portrait and the portrait of an old woman.

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Samuel Finkelstein, like many other painters, was at first meant to follow a different career path, not connected with art and intended to provide him with a good salary and stability. His father was a merchant. Samuel was to follow in his footsteps. However, after four years of trade school in is hometown of Łódź he decided, having gathered enough internal conviction, to leave the path intended to lead him to a stable profession. With great enthusiasm he started the rather risky career of an artist, most likely against his parents’ wishes. He studied art under Wojciech Weiss at he Academy of Fine Arts in Cracow (though he only spent one school year there,1913/1914). Cracow did not fulfill his expectations. Finkelstein moved to Vienna to study at the famous Academy of Fine Arts. He spent six semesters there, from the winter semester of 1915/1914 to the summer semester of 1918. From his student files, kept in the Academy’s archives, we know that when he began his studies in the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, his father had already passed away. Only his mother was alive. It seems that it was this sad event, which had allowed Finkelstein to pursue studies more relevant to his interests. 

In Vienna he learned painting and drawing from the stars of the Academy professors Julius Schmid, Rudolf Bacher, Rudolf Jettmar, Josef Jungwrith and Hans Tichy. Finkelstein never received his diploma despite having completed the requisite number of semesters (including his studies in Cracow). We do not know why he never finalized his studies.

He tied his personal and professional life with Łódź where his mother and other family lived. This is where he most often exhibited his works, though he did not limit himself to the galleries of that city. He participated, among other events, in the Jewish Art Spring Showcase in Warsaw in 1927 and in many events organized in Cracow by the Society for the Friends of Fine Arts. 

Finkelstein was good at painting portraits, which is evident when one looks for example at the depiction of his wife, painted with simplicity, using few colors (JHI Museum item no. A-305). The models pictured by Finkelstein are painted through “flat surfaces”. Despite, or maybe due to, this fact the artist managed to capture their characters. He did not focus on unnecessary techniques intended to, for example, depict the person as realistically as possible. His portrayals are encapsulating, economical and simple. He limited colors to the few most important ones, saturated. 

Finkelstein did not compete against the followers of newest trends. Despite his close interactions with constructivists Katarzyna Kobro and Władysław Strzemiński in Łódź, Finkelstein resisted their influence and did not drift towards the avant-garde. His fascination with color is clearly visible in many of his paintings. He narrowed his search, however, to a rather traditional aesthetic — realistic landscape for example. You might call him a colorist. 

One of Finkelstein’s most interesting paintings among those in the JHI’s collection is the artist’s self-portrait painted on canvas (JHI Museum item no. A-57). 

There are few important issues regarding self-representation, worth mentioning here. As far as form goes it does not differ much from Finkelstein’s other canvases. The medium used is characteristic of him. 

We see the painter standing across from us, wearing a hat and a green jacket, holding a palette in his hand. In the background, on the wall of the workshop, hang two paintings. One depicts an old woman sitting in an armchair and holding a book. The other, smaller one shows only the outlines of figures.

The painter depicts himself as a mature man, sure of his artistic choices. Standing firm. 

Is the self-portrait some kind of manifesto? Does it emphasize pride in his choices? The choice to be a painter, a free spirit, rather than a tradesman? It would seem so. The artist painted himself in a dignified pose, standing tall not trying to charm the viewer. The green jacket is the only wild element in the image, a reflection of his sense of uniqueness. The self-portrait clearly shows that the artist is certain the path he chose is the right one. His achievements are significant enough (and he is a graduate of a respected school) that he can allow himself this slightly vain self-representation. He dismisses the four years wasted I trade school. 

When Finkelstein chose to paint a self-portrait he was aware that he would be confronting its centuries old tradition. For a painter it is always a risk endeavor. It is difficult to measure oneself against the works of the cannon, widely admired and set on pedestals. Did Finkelstein fulfill the task he set himself?  

Let’s take another look at the image of the old woman reading a book in the background. It adds another dimension to the self — portrait, changes its meaning. Since the author placed this portrait with a self-portrait, it must have been significant to him. We can speculate that this is the image of the artist’s mother. For now it is impossible to identify the person in it. But as a supposed source of inspiration it is hard to avoid thinking of the portraits of Rembrandt’s mother reading the Bible, painted both by the master himself and his student Gerrit Dou. We can say that in all likelihood the image of Finkelstein’s mother was, as the self-portrait, an attempt to emulate or compare against Rembrandt and other old masters. 

Another noteworthy fact is that both the “Portrait of Mother” (JHI Museum item no. A-186) and the self-portrait have survived and are now part of the Institute’s collection. Both paintings can be currently viewed as part of the “Salvaged…” exhibit.

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