Chtenie pis’ma s rodiny (A Letter from Home). Leonid Pasternak, 1889. Oil on canvas. The State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. (© The State Tretyakov Gallery)

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Pasternak, Leonid

(1862–1945), painter. Born in Odessa to a poor innkeeper’s family of nine, Leonid Pasternak completed his gymnasium education in 1879. He then studied first at the Odessa Drawing School and between 1882 and 1886 at the Munich Art Academy. Upon his return to Odessa, he painted a series of impressionistic genre works depicting impoverished Jews. Pasternak was first acclaimed in Russia for his Chtenie pis’ma s rodiny (Letter from Home; 1889), a traditional genre scene that portrayed Russian army life in a realist style. In 1889, he married and settled in Moscow, becoming the father of the well-known writer Boris Pasternak. From 1894 to 1918 he taught at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture where he introduced moderate impressionism (a Russian version of French impressionism, with more muted colors) and followed new teaching methods.

Yudishe kinder-lider far kinder-heymen, shuln, un familye (Jewish Children’s Songs for Children’s Homes, Schools, and Family), by Yo’el Engel (Moscow: Gezelshaft far Idishe Muzik, ca. 1915). Graphic design by Leonid Pasternak. (Gross Family Collection)

Pasternak returned to Jewish subject matter in 1891, the year in which many Jews were expelled from Moscow. His On budet zhdat (He Will Wait) shows an aged, desolate, bearded Jew sitting on a low stool with his hands folded and a walking cane leaning against him. Pasternak used the same image to illustrate excerpts from Maria Konopnicka’s novella Mendel Gdánski, published in Ost und West (1907). In 1901, he created a lithograph and a pastel-and-charcoal version of Muzykanty evrei (Three Jewish Musicians) showing klezmer artists playing indoors. This work reflected his concurrent inter-est in Jewish folk music, as did his illustration for the title page of Yoyel Engel’s Yudishe folkslider (Jewish Folk Melodies; 1912).

After the October Revolution of 1917, Pasternak was commissioned to paint group portraits of Soviet leaders. At that point he stopped teaching, as art education was taken over by a new generation of avant-garde artists. He strengthened his ties to Jewish intellectual circles, painting portraits of cultural and national revival leaders, including Engel, S. An-Ski, Avraham Stybel, David Frishman, and Ḥayim Naḥman Bialik. He was especially close to Stybel, the owner of the famous Jewish publishing house, at whose estate (Karzinkino, near Moscow) Pasternak spent the summers of 1918 and 1919 in the company of Yiddish and Hebrew writers. In 1918, Pasternak he began to write an essay on Rembrandt and the Jews (published later in Berlin as Rembrandt i evreistvo v ego tvorchestve [Rembrandt and Judaism in His Work; 1923]).

Pasternak saw himself primarily as a Russian artist, and his art as universal rather than national. Among his more famous works is Tolstoi s sem’yoi (In the Lamplight: Tolstoy and Family; 1902). Although Pasternak’s connection to Russia was firm, in 1921 he left for Berlin where he associated with German Jewish artists such as Max Liebermann and Hermann Struck, and with Russian Jewish émigré circles. Three books were issued about his works while he lived in Berlin; these contained prefaces in Russian, German, and Hebrew by Struck, Bialik, and Max Osborn. In 1924, Pasternak joined an expedition to Palestine, where he drew numerous pictures of sites and local people. In 1938, fleeing the Nazis, he moved to London and then to Oxford, where he wrote his memoirs.

Suggested Reading

David Buckman, Leonid Pasternak: A Russian Impressionist (London, 1974); The Memoirs of Leonid Pasternak (London, 1982); A Russian Impressionist: Paintings and Drawings by Leonid Pasternak, 1890–1945 (Washington, 1987); Rimgaila Salys, Leonid Pasternak, The Russian Years, 1875–1921: A Critical Study and Catalogue, vol. 1 (Oxford, 1999).