Isador Kaufmann, perhaps the most important of the Jewish genre painters of the 19th Century, was born in 1853 in Arad. His artistic career began at the age of twenty-one when he copied a head of Moses and displayed it in his relatives' tobacconist shop. The drawing drew the attention of Baron Aczèl, the Arad chief of police, who convinced the young Kaufmann's mother of the artistic talent of her son and supported the artist financially at the Budapest State School of Drawing. Kaufmann later attended the Imperial Academy of Visual Arts in Vienna, where he studied with Josef Trenkwald, a historical painter who was associated with the Nazarene movement.
Kaufmann's earliest paintings date from 1883-1884, and the Viennese art dealer Frederick Schwartz, who represented many of Vienna's burgeoning artists, handled a majority of the artist's work. The work presented by the Schwartz's gallery was characterized by depictions of the simplicity of everyday life, small formats and amazing attention to detail.
Commercial Instruction is characteristic of Kaufmann's work in that it depicts an interior of a Jewish household with figures engaged in one aspect of day to day living. In this case, it is an arithmetic lesson. A father and son are engrossed in solving a problem, which the father has written on the table top with the piece of chalk that he holds in his right hand. The attention to the details of the room is masterful, and the artist's ability to depict the patience of the father and the look of sudden comprehension on the boy's face as he begins to understand the problem lends immediacy to the scene. Indeed, it has been written of Kaufmann's paintings that they 'are characterized by an exhaustive attention to detail and an acute sense of the psychological authenticity of his models. His brushwork is so precise that it is visible often only under magnification'. (J. Weinstein, A Collector's Guide to Judaica, London, 1985, p. 178).
The present lot is one of many works in the artist's oeuvre which depict figures in furnished interiors, but it is unusual in the fact that it does not illustrate a visit from a rabbi, preparation for the Sabbath or Talmudic instruction. A father is simply teaching his son how to figure. To Kaufmann, the pre-eminent painter of Jewish life, this too was worthy of representation and is also a sacred act. In fact, this composition does share one quality with the more traditional work. The furnishings of the room were used repeatedly by the artist, particularly the carved wood table, the chest in the background with the Sabbath lamps, the Baroque mantelpiece clock and the books and the representation of Moses on the wall. These are all articles which appear later in Kaufmann's celebrated 'Sabbath Room' originally created by the artist for the Vienna Jewish Museum in Rathausstrasse. By using these accurate descriptions of the interior of a Jewish home, Kaufmann has lent a subtle sanctity to a scene of ordinary life.
Dr. Hubert Adolph has authenticated this work.
fig. 1. Isidor Kaufman, 1906