Amazing picture of Harold Rabinovitz
The painting of Harold Rabinovitz arrived in early in 2006. Having extricated the canvas from its sturdy container, I propped it against a wall and stared. I was mesmerized: Eventide is as visually powerful as it is physically imposing (61 x 43 inches). Its composition is dominated by the crouching figure of a young mother, clad in a simple, rose-colored dress. Her gaze fixed on the naked, curly-haired infant she holds protectively in her muscular arms with wellarticulated hands. We see the child only from behind. His attention is focused on his father, clad in faded blue overalls and visible through
an open doorway, carrying a lunch pail. The man’s face is drained and his gait deliberate as he follows the packed-dirt path leading to the family’s modest home. It is dusk, the end of a long workday.
Beyond lies a gentle vista of mountains, what may be a furrowed field, and a body of water between. The sky, however, is ominous and gray, darkening as night descends. In the foreground and along the picture’s left side, the artist evokes a meager existence. Bare wooden floors, an oil lamp, a garment hanging, an unadorned window. Though the parents’ poses connote quiet desperation, their bearing conveys rugged perseverance. A note of hope is suggested by the hearty plant rising from the pot in the foreground. This is the face of the Great Depression, surely the bleakest era ever for America’s rural working poor, yet perhaps better times lie ahead.
In immaculate condition, my newly arrived painting was clearly signed “H.J. Rabinovitz,” and its original stretcher was inscribed “H.J. Rabinovitz/Jan. 20, 1936.” I e-mailed a photograph of it to Robert L. McGrath, a retired art professor at Dartmouth College. “What a great painting,” he responded, “an American holy family if there ever was one.”
About the artist
So who was this Harold Rabinovitz? How did he come to create this painting? Standard references offered little insight beyond his first name (Harold), lifedates (1915-1944). Birthplace (Springfield, Massachusetts), undergraduate education at Yale University, and surprisingly impressive exhibition credentials during the brief period 1936-41. Judging from Eventide, his oeuvre seemed to reflect the Regionalist aesthetic that dominated American art throughout the Depression. (Among its leading figures were Thomas Hart Benton, John Steuart Curry, Reginald Marsh, and Raphael and Moses Soyer.)
My earnest effort at unlocking this mystery began with Wayne Kielsmeier, the Tucson dealer from whom I had acquired Eventide. He had handled several works consigned by a niece of Harold Rabinovitz s who owns a fascinating scrapbook documenting the artist’s life. Professional triumphs, and horribly tragic death as a Japanese prisoner of war. This scrapbook had been created and lovingly maintained by his proud parents, Dr. Bernard and Mrs. Sarah Rabinovitz of Springfield.
This irreplaceable archive has made it possible for me to trace Rabinovitz’s biography, assess his work, and highlight his contributions to American art. Its yellowed newspaper clippings, ranging in date from 1936 through 1959, offer numerous details. While letters from museum officials and collectors attest to the high regard in which Rabinovitz’s work was held. The scrapbook also contains ephemera, including high school drawing awards and the heartbreaking postcards he sent his parents during the war. Most importantly, it holds dozens of photographs documenting many of Rabinovitz’s paintings, watercolors, and prints. (Most of these original artworks remain in the possession of family members. Where they are well preserved but otherwise largely unknown.)
A PROMISING START
Harold Rabinovitz was born the second child (and first son) of Russian émigré parents. His father, Bernard, the son and grandson of rabbis, had parlayed his early pharmaceutical training in Russia into a Tufts University medical degree and then a long and successful career as a physician in Springfield. By all accounts, the Rabinovitz household was a nurturing environment. Harold graduated in 1931 from Classical High School in Springfield. Where he took drawing classes at the George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum and private lessons from a local artist.
In 1931, he matriculated at the Yale University School of Fine Art. Standing 6’2”, the slender youngster managed to complete the standard five-year degree program in four years — an amazing accomplishment given its rigor at that time.2 Rabinovitz received his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree with highest honors in 1935, aged just 20.
The works he made at Yale reflect a firm grasp of draftsmanship and composition, a muted and earthy palette, and a profound social conscience. Breadline (or Skid Row), an oil from 1935, is a heart-rending portrait of a homeless man. Rabinovitz’s monumental tempera Soldiers is both an indictment of war and a tribute to courage, camaraderie, and survival in battle. (It is also a haunting foreshadowing of his own fate.) He scored his first major success when Soldiers was selected for the 1935 Prix de Rome exhibition in New York City, a prestigious showcase for emerging artists.
Shortly after graduating from Yale, Harold Rabinovitz opened a studio in Springfield. Eventide was the first major work completed there — barely in time to submit to the Springfield Art League’s annual members’ exhibition. Which opened on his 21st birthday. To the delight of the local press, Rabinovitz proved to be “the dark horse who romped in ahead of the field. Capturing with Eventide the first prize for oils from a jury that included no less a figure than Edward Hopper. A related painting of 1936, Dustbowl, portrays another three-member family carrying their meager possessions away from their dust-ravaged home in the Midwest.
After a brief trip exploring the art and architecture of Russia, Harold Rabinovitz moved to the New York City neighborhood of Greenwich Village. There he continued, at least initially, to produce poignant. Meticulously crafted pictures informed by the tenets of the “American Scene” movement, which presented identifiably native subjects in a predominantly realistic manner. In a 1937 oil titled The Planters, he again employed the heroic Regionalist style to portray three laborers. In the same year came subjects inspired by city life. Furnished Rooms shows a downcast young woman standing on the porch of a dilapidated rooming house. While 7th Avenue Express depicts subway passengers, distracted by their own burdens, studiously ignoring the entreaties of a blind male beggar.
Also in 1937, Rabinovitz enrolled in the first of several courses he would take over four years at the Art Students League of New York.
The most influential, focused on life painting, was taught by the Japanese-American master Yasuo Kuniyoshi (1893-1953). Whose lyrical brand of realism was, for Rabinovitz, a significant departure from the harder-edged style he had adopted at Yale.
Rabinovitz first won national notice in 1938, when a critic singled out an “extraordinarily pleasing and consummate still-life” in a museum exhibition at San Francisco. This may have been the same Still Life shown later that year at the Springfield Museum of Fine Arts, where critic W.G. Rogers noted. The texture of the painting is softer, the design looser, the colors less somber, the craftsmanship more expert. These characteristics strongly suggest Kuniyoshi’s growing influence.
Harold Rabinovitz ’s career reached a new level in 1939 with the appearance of his masterful Self-Portrait at the Easel at the prestigious annual show of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. This large oil was one of only four by first-time exhibitors to receive special mention in the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin. More importantly, it so impressed Homer St. Gaudens, director of the Carnegie Institute of Art, that he quickly sought a studio visit with an eye toward including Rabinovitz in the 1939 Carnegie International Exhibition. Ultimately he selected for that show Study of a Boy, a large but delicately painted three-quarter-length portrait of a teenager. After it received favorable notice in The Washington Post, Wilbur D. Peat, director of Indianapolis’s John Herron Art Institute, included it in his 1940 annual exhibition.
Meanwhile, Rabinovitz scored another coup when his oil Wash Day was included in the American Art Today exhibition at the New York World’s Fair of 1939. He completed this veritable “grand slam” year by exhibiting a painting at Washington’s Corcoran Gallery of Art.
Now there remained just one major venue to conquer: the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. In 1940, its dynamic director, Juliana Force, invited Rabinovitz’s participation in her annual show that fall, ultimately selecting a half-length Self-Portrait. The New York Times was moderately appreciative: “At first glance Mr. Rabinovitz’s ‘Portrait’ seems pallid and insubstantial, yet it ‘carries,’ and the head is, in its own way, discerningly modeled.”
Alas, Ballet Dancer, a full-length treatment of a contemplative man with a guitar resting in the otherwise empty background, would be the last work Rabinovitz ever exhibited. This proved a highlight of a 1941 exhibition at the Springfield Museum of Fine Arts. Boston’s Institute of Modern Art, titled Fifty Paintings by Young Americans.
By then, the relentless advance of Axis forces had made America’s participation in World War II virtually inevitable. Perhaps not surprisingly in light of the well-developed social conscience evident in so many of his artworks, Rabinovitz was an avowed pacifist. However, his father — who had become a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1911 — was an ardent patriot who clearly expected his son to enlist in the military. Harold’s apparent capitulation to his father’s will remains a source of guilt within the family even today.
On June 2, 1941, six months before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the 26-year-old artist enlisted in the U.S. Army. After a brief assignment stateside, he joined the command of General Douglas MacArthur to defend the Philippines from a Japanese invasion. Within a year, he rose quickly in rank to staff sergeant in the Corps of Engineers. Yet American forces were unable to hold the Japanese at bay; having already endured considerable hunger and disease, all troops remaining in Bataan and Corregidor were compelled to surrender in May 1942.
Later that year, Dr. and Mrs. Rabinovitz received an illegibly dated telegraph (now in the scrapbook) confirming that their son was a prisoner.
The atrocities endured by captured American and Filipino soldiers were heinous and remain legendary. According to the sparse information contained in the few carefully monitored postcards he was allowed to send. Rabinovitz was interned at Cabanatuan Camp #1, north of Manila. A U.S. Military Intelligence Division report indicates that this camp “lacked the proper and necessary sanitary arrangements and the dead were left lying around. Even after they had been removed. The nauseating odor from the nearby graveyard and its shallow graves” affected the surviving prisoners. Medical supplies offered by the Red Cross were repeatedly turned away by the Japanese, contributing to a mortality rate of as many as 50 per day.
Rabinovitz’s parents received at least seven postcards from Cabanatuan. While one indicated that their son was “sick in hospital” but “better” (“[M]y love to all and don’t worry”), most described his health as “excellent.” On July 15, 1944, he conceded that “[e]ach card seems to
be a repetition of the last but I know you will understand. Hope you are all well,” he added, signing off “[w]ith all my love.”
That was likely the last card received from him. As American troops advanced, the Japanese began transferring prisoners to labor camps in Japan. Prisoners were packed into ships like cargo, and the vessels were intentionally unmarked, drastically increasing the likelihood of American
attack. The freighter Arisan Maru departed Manila on October 10, 1944, carrying some 1,800 prisoners, including Rabinovitz. It was torpedoed by an American submarine in the South China Sea 14 days later, killing all but a handful of those aboard.
On February 3, 1952, two days after what would have been Rabinovitz’s 37th birthday, the Springfield Museum of Fine Arts unveiled a three-week-long memorial retrospective. It was an honor delayed, in all probability, by the enduring grief of his parents. Newspaper coverage was extensive, and opening-day attendance was the third largest in the museum’s history.
“It is an important show,” wrote one critic, “because of the heights his work reached. It is also deeply moving because revealed in these paintings, drawings and prints are a heart and a soul from which patriots and martyrs are made. Dorothy Adlow of The Christian Science Monitor offered a long. And perceptive assessment that included admiring words about the portraits: Harold Rabinovitz was a born portraitist. He perceived and related traits of character without straining his means, without employing distortion or exaggerated effects. His was a modern mode of naturalism, free of artifice. He did not impose a personality upon the model, but he discovered the signalizing traits of character, dignity and grace.
“This young man,” observed critic Donal MacPhee, “stood on the threshold of a most promising career as an artist [and] had, in a remarkably short time, grown out of his instruction and influences into a virile and provocative painting style that was becoming intrinsically his own.”
The retrospective was a way for Springfield to honor a favorite son and an artist of enormous promise whose life was extinguished in service to his country. Dr. and Mrs. Rabinovitz visited the exhibition several times, and perhaps their pride was finally able to supplant their grief. Though the American art scene had changed ramatically in the dozen years since their son had left it. That space of time also furnished a clearer perspective on his enius. Now, with the passage of six more decades, surely the time has come for a fresh reappraisal of the art of Harold Rabinovitz.