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The School of Paris – Art Created by Jewish Immigrant Artists

Paris was the epicenter of the art world in the 19th and 20th centuries, attracting artists from all over the globe. Any artist dreaming of making a name in the art world came to Paris. They all wanted to be part of the vibrant & creative art scene.

Amongst the many who flocked to the French capital, there was a fascinating group of artists who came from the Eastern European countries. Many of them were Jewish, fleeing religious persecution and repressive governments. These artists fled from countries like Russia, Poland, Belarus and Lithuania. For them Paris was a haven as they were finally free to create without any restraints.

Many of these Jewish immigrant artists lived in and set up their studios predominantly in the cheap Montparnasse district of Paris. They lived in small rundown apartments and/or rented small art studios in a dilapidated building known as La Ruche (The Beehive). This building is still standing today (Press here to see a map of its location in Paris)!

Together these artists established “The School of Paris” of Montparnasse.

La Ruche in Montparnasse - the home of many "school of Paris" artists
La Ruche in Montparnasse – the home of many post-impressionism artists
[Public Domain]
La Ruche in Montparnasse district of Paris today
La Ruche in Montparnasse Paris today
Photo by  Marmontel (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

What was the “School of Paris”?

The School of Paris is a loosely based term that describes the activities of French and Immigrant artists who worked in Montparnasse in the first half of the 20th century. The “School of Paris” was not an art movement per se but rather a “beehive” of activity of revolutionary artistic ideas in the era of post-impressionism.

A large proportion of the artists belonging to the “School of Paris” were Jewish and came from Eastern European countries. In the district of of Montparnasse, these artists worked closely together, hanging out & discussing art in cafes, participating together in salons, sharing studios and galleries .

Some Famous artists who were active in the School of Paris

The artists active in the “School of Paris” include the young and not yet famous Pablo PicassoMarc ChagallAmedeo Modigliani ,Piet Mondrian & many others. French-born artists included Pierre BonnardHenri Matisse, Jean Metzinger and Albert Gleizes. In addition to these famous names, there were many more artists who were active members & contributed significantly to the School of Paris.

Jean Metzinger Painting
Cubism painting by Jean Metzinger, School of Paris Art

School of Paris Art included the beginnings of Pointillism, Fauvism and Cubism.

During this period of artistic activity, these artists collaborated and experimented with the new artistic ideas, such as pointillism, fauvism and cubism. But despite this vibrant artistic activity, many of the foreign artists lived precariously. Most had no status at all and many brought in very little income from their art. Day to day life was a challenge.

What Happened to the School of Paris & the Jewish Artists?

The Rise of Antisemitism, Xenophobia and Nazism

By the late 1920s, antisemitism and xenophobia were on the rise all across Europe, including Paris. The Depression years of the 1930s further exacerbated the hatred. Europe was still licking its wounds from WW1 and the extreme right-wing governments were gaining power everywhere.

Antisemitic criticism of the Jewish immigrant artists in Paris was being voiced openly. Some French art critics began saying that these foreign artists were taking over and leaving no place for the true French artists. The French editor of Le Figaro, Camille Mau­clair, even called, these Jewish artists of Mont­par­nasse ​“the filth of Paris”.

These Jewish artists who fled persecution in their home countries were now dealing with the same hatred here. When the Nazis took over Paris in  June 14, 1940, their lives were no longer safe. All the Jewish artists feared for their lives from both the French police and the German Gestapo. Some of them managed to survive the war, others escaped to safer countries but many died in ghettos and death camps.

Lesser known Jewish immigrant artists active in the “School of Paris” of Montparnasse & their stories

Moise Kisling (Krakow, Poland 1891 – Sanary-sur-Mer, France 1953)

Moïse Kisling was born as Mojzesz Kisling. He grew up in Krakow, Poland and moved to Paris to pursue painting in 1910 at the age of 19. He fought for France in World War One and then received French citizenship in 1915.

Kisling was one of the principal artists in the Paris School. He was good friends with his neighbor Amedeo Modigliani, who painted his portrait in 1916. Many artists such as Max Jacob, Juan Gris, Andre Derain hung out at Kisling’s studio. He was a successful artist and was called by his peers “the Prince of Montparnasse”.

Moise Kisling Painting - Post Impressionism
Moise Kisling Painting – Post Impressionism – School of Paris Art

Kisling’s painting style was initially influenced by Derain and Cézanne. Later however, he adopted the more cubist approach of Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso.

When the Second World War broke out, Kisling fled France for the United States. The American art world embraced Kisling’s paintings and he exhibited at the Whitney Museum and the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia.

After the war finished, he returned to Southern France and died in 1953.

Moïse Kisling - One of the active members of the School of Paris Art
Moïse Kisling – Cubism style painting

István Farkas (Budapest, Hungary 1887 -Auschwitz-Birkenau, Poland 1944)

István Farkas was born in Budapest and into a middle-class Jewish family. His father was an art collector and wanted his talented artistic son to receive the best art education possible. He sent Istvan to study at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich in 1910. A year later, Istvan left for Paris to further is studies. In Paris, he befriended fellow artists, Marc Chagall and Fernand Léger.

When WW1 broke out, Istvan returned to Hungary & volunteered to join the army, to his father’s dismay. A few years after the war, Istvan returned to Paris but this time with his wife, also an artist, Ida Kohner. They joined the School of Paris artistic community.

Compared to many others Istvan Farkas was successful as an artist. He held many exhibitions and sold his artworks.

Istvan Farkas Painting - School of Paris Art
Istvan Farkas Painting [Public Domain]

Istvan’s return to Hungary & the Dark WW2 years

When Istvan’s father died in 1932, he returned to Hungary to take over his father’s publishing business. He was so busy with the family business that he painted mch less. However, when he did paint during this period, his paintings portrayed a forboding doom.

In Germany, Hitler and his fascist cronies were gaining control and Hungary was also starting to enforce harsh anti-Jewish laws.

Istvan Farkas Painting - Separation (1940)
Istvan Farkas Painting – Separation (1940)

In June 1944, the Nazi’s arrested Istvan Farkas and sent him to Auschwitz where he was murdered.

Jacques (Ya’akov) Chapiro (Dinaburg, Russia 1887–Paris, France 1972)

Jacques Chapiro, a Jewish painter, began his artistic education at the early age of ten. When he turned 18, Chapiro moved to Krakow to further his art studies and then later continued in Kiev.

In 1925 and at the age of 38, Chapiro left Russia for Paris . He lived at La Ruche for five years and associated with the activities of the School of Paris. Chapiro did well in Paris and managed to exhibit his paintings at the Salon des Indépendants, the Salon des Tuileries and in many other galleries.

When Hitler invaded the French capital, Jacques Chapiro quickly fled. He spent the rest of the war years hiding in various small towns in Provence.  He managed to survive the war.

Jacques Chapiro painting - School of Paris Art
Jacques Chapiro painting – School of Paris Art

After the War

In 1967, the municipality of Paris planned to demolish the historic building, La Ruche. Chapiro fought against this together with Marc Chagall and Raymond Cogniat and they succeeded. Thanks to their efforts, La Ruche remains standing today!

Jacques Chapiro experimented with various artistic styles throughout his painting career. He painted sometimes as a cubist, sometimes as an impressionist and at other times as a fauvist. His works are beautiful.

Jacques Chapiro - School of Paris Art
Jacques Chapiro – School of Paris Art

Adolphe Féder (Odessa, Russia 1886 – Auschwitz-Birkenau, Poland 1943)

Adolphe Féder was born to a family of Jewish merchants in Odessa. Because of his political activity, he was forced to flee Russia at the young age of 19. Feder first went to Berlin to study art and then continued his studies in Geneva.

In 1910, he moved to Paris to become part of the vibrant art scene. Feder was active in the School of Paris art scene in Montparnasse. He hung out with fellow artists such as Othon Friesz, Amedeo Modigliani, and Jacques Lipchitz and enjoyed his bohemian life.

Adolphe Féder painting

Adolphe Féder loved the sunny landscapes of Southern France and he painted many landscapes of this region. In 1926 he managed to travel to Palestine and painted many of the scenes from that trip as well.

Féder, was lucky to be one of the more successful artists in Paris. He sold his artworks and was financially able to support himself.

When the Nazis entered Paris, Feder refused to leave his beloved Paris. Unfortunately, the Nazis caught Feder and his wife. Feder was sent to Auschwitz in 1943 and was murdered.

Adolphe Feder Painting
Adolphe Feder Painting

Ossip Zadkine (Vitebsk, Belarus 1890 – Paris, France 1967)

Ossip Zadkine was a talented poet, sculptor and graphic artist. He was born in Vitebsk, Belarus as Yossel Arnovich Tsadkin. This was the same town where Chagall grew up. Zadkine’s family left the village for the Russian city, Smolensk, and mixed with cultured & assimilated Russian Jews.

Zadkine’s father was Jewish and his mother came from Scottish decent. This allowed Zadkine to study art in England, while staying with his mother’s relatives. Later, at the age of twenty, Zadkine moved to Paris to further pursue his art. Here in the French capital, Ossip Zadkine rented a studio in La Ruche and befriended many artists. It was during this period that he experimented in Cubism together with Picasso, Braque & others.

Ossip Zadkine Cubism Painting entitled Three Men
Ossip Zadkine Cubism Painting entitled Three Men [Public Domain]

During World War I, Zadkine was wounded in action while on duty as a stretcher-bearer.  When the Second World War broke out, Zadkine, fled Nazi occupied France and spent the war years in the United States.

Ossip Zadkine returned to Paris after the war and continued his successful art career in painting and sculpture. One of his most famous sculptures is entitled a “City Without Heart” . It stands in Rotterdam as a memorial of the Nazi’s senseless and deliberate destruction of Rotterdam center in 1940. 

Zadkine sculpture entitled: City Without Heart, Rotterdam [CC BY 3.0]
Zadkine memorial entitled: City Without Heart, Rotterdam [Public Domain]

Zadkine died in 1967 at the age of 77 and is buried in the Montparnasse cemetery. His former home and studio is now the Musée Zadkine.

Jesekiel David Kirszenbaum (1900 Staszow, Poland – 1954 Paris, France)

Jesekiel David Kirszenbaum was born in Poland and was the youngest child of a rabbi . At a young age he rebelled against his father’s wishes for him to become a rabbi. Instead, the young Kirszenbaum preferred to draw portraits and to read literature. In 1920, he fled to Germany in order to avoid recruitment into the Polish army.

Early beginnings as an Artist in Germany

When Kirszenbaum arrived in Berlin, he supported himself by teaching Hebrew. From his earnings, he continued to paint. In 1923, Kirszenbaum moved to Weimar to study art and then in the Bauhaus School in Berlin. During this period Kirszenbaum worked as a freelance cartoonist for different German magazines. He married in 1930.

However, when Hitler and the Nazis came into power in 1933, Kirszenbaum & his wife fled Berlin for Paris and joined the activities of the School of Paris.

The Dark Years for Jesekiel David Kirszenbaum

During the years of WW2, the Kirszenbaums went underground as soon as Germany invaded Paris. However, the Nazis caught his wife and she was killed in one of the death camps. The Nazis looted Kirszenbaum’s art studio and around 600 of his art works were destroyed.

Kirszenbaum’s reflections about himself after the terrible war years:

“Since I’m living in pain and bitterness, I’m not a saint. Moreover I have no confidence in mankind or in my own existence”.

Jesekiel David Kirszenbaum painting entitled: Farewell to the World
Jesekiel David Kirszenbaum painting entitled: Farewell to the World
Source: Boisgirard

In 1948, Kirszenbaum traveled to Brazil to reunite with his sister who managed to flee Europe and survive. He stayed with her for a few months but missed his life in Paris. He returned to the French capital in 1949 & obtained French nationality.

Kirszenbaum died of cancer when he was only 54 years old.

Check out the book entitled Shocking Paris: Soutine, Chagall and the Outsiders of Montparnasse written by Stanley Meisler. In this book, he wonderful portrays the life of the Eastern European Jewish artists who participated in the vibrant “School of Paris” art scene.

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