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Samuel Rosenberg: Portrait of a Painter


An exhibition on the Pittsburgh artist and teacher Samuel Rosenberg (1896-1972) entitled Samuel Rosenberg: Portrait of a Painter will open at the Westmoreland Museum of American Art (WMAA) on June 29, 2003. The exhibition is organized by the WMAA and runs through October 19, 2003. This retrospective will present a comprehensive overview of six decades of this influential regional artist's work; work that has not been shown in this quantity since the WMAA hosted the first retrospective of the artist's work in 1960. With the exception of six paintings from the WMAA collection, all of the artwork will be on loan from the family, and both public and private collections. The exhibition will contain over 70 paintings, a selection of preliminary sketches, collages, and drawings, and will be accompanied by a book on the artist written by WMAA curator Barbara L. Jones and published by University of Pittsburgh Press in cooperation with the Carnegie Museum of Art.  The public is invited to a free lecture and reception at the WMAA on Sunday, June 29. Jones will present a lecture on Rosenberg at 2:00 p.m. followed by a public reception and book-signing from 3:00-5:00 p.m. (right: Self-Portrait by a Window , 1919, oil on canvas, 18 x 16 inches, Collection: Arline Rosenberg (Mrs. Murray) Photo credit: Richard A. Stoner)

As an artist, Rosenberg contributed substantially to the art of his time, from his early years creating portraits, to his moving depictions of depression era Pittsburgh, to his break from reality using fractured abstractions. His work mirrors the 20th century with all its artistic shifts in style while reflecting social and economic forces at work at the time, evolving stylistically from literal representation to the universal sublime.

Rosenberg's painting and teaching career spanned nearly six decades of the twentieth century.  He worked through fifty volatile years in the development of American art, through the depression era, which was followed by economic and cultural prosperity, through decades that were once again fraught with wars, dissent, and disillusionment.  From 1915 to 1972, he created over 500 paintings, over 400 preparatory sketches and drawings, and over 100 collages.  His work can be divided into four periods, with frequent overlapping or transitional episodes within each: 1915 - 1930, Portraits (and a few still lifes);  1930 - 1942, Pittsburgh's Urban Landscape and the American Scene; 1942 - 1952, Allegory to Abstraction; and 1949 - 1972, Abstract Expressionism.

As a professor at the Carnegie Institute (now Carnegie Mellon University), Rosenberg founded the art department at the Irene Kaufmann Settlement, a private philanthropic social agency in the Hill District, and at the Isaac Seder Educational Center at the YM&WHA, and served as chairman of the art department at the Pennsylvania College for Women (now Chatham College). His former students include Philip Pearlstein, Mel Bochner, and Andy Warhol -- whom Rosenberg supported when Carnegie Tech threatened him with expulsion.

The book on the artist is comprised of 82 color plates and 50 black and white reproductions presents Rosenberg both as an artist and teacher, placing him in the broader context of the social, economic, and political issues of the time.  Augmenting Jones' essay on the artist, four additional authors contribute essays in their specialized area of expertise. Laurence Glasco, Ph.D. writes about Pittsburgh's Hill District, where Rosenberg lived and recorded in his paintings as it changed both ethnically and economically.  Bennard Perlman, artist, art critic and former student, shares his experiences about the educational environment and opportunities at Carnegie Institute of Technology when he and Andy Warhol were students of Rosenberg.  Barbara Burstin, Ph.D. contributes an essay on the Jewish community in Pittsburgh, and Eric Leif Davin, Ph.D. writes about Pittsburgh's political and social structure during Rosenberg's lifetime. The book is available at the WMAA Museum Shop.

Funding for the exhibition is provided by Mr. and Mrs. Milton Fine, The Edward and Jane Haskell Fund for Creative Projects of the United Jewish Federation Foundation, Howard Heinz Endowments, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Millstein Charitable Foundation and the Rockwell Foundation.


The Influence of Rosenberg

In conjunction with Portrait of a Painter, the WMAA will also open a two-part exhibition on June 29 entitled The Influence of Rosenberg . This exhibition will present the work of a selection of his former students at both Carnegie Tech and the Young Men & Women's Hebrew Associations in Pittsburgh. Part I runs through August 24 and features the following artists: Julianne Biehl, Randolph Chalfant, Hubert Fitzgerald, Elsie Kalstone, Gloria Karn, Constantine Kermes, Elizabeth McClain, Philip Pearlstein, Bennard Perlman, Gloria Peterson, David J. Schnabel, Dale Stein and Andy Warhol. Part II will run from August 27 to October 19 and will feature the following artists: Blanche G. Alexander, Rochelle Blumenfeld, Mel Bochner, Joan Cohen, Ray DeFazio, Hilda Demsky, Eleanor Fax, Sara Feldman, Aaronel deRoy Gruber, Diane Haber, Jane Haskell, Katherine Kadish, George Nama and Herb Olds.


The Significance of Samuel Rosenberg

Rosenberg's paintings are filled with his images of the visible world, his emotions, and his imagination.  From his early portraits, commissioned and otherwise, through his social realist studies of the Hill District where he grew up, to his allegorical subjects and universal themes of suffering, and finally, to his enigmatic abstract expressionist canvases of light and color, Rosenberg's growth as an artist was a slow and steady, ever-evolving progression.  A shy and thoughtful man, his reticence did not translate into his painting, for he painted with an authority that surpassed his personality.

Throughout his artistic development, Rosenberg resisted conforming to a single signature style.  After years of experimentation, his own style emerged in his mature work of the late 1950s, and early 1960s, when he finally, as he said, "came into his own."  He carried through in a methodical development from one artistic stage to the next and continuity in his method and approach was a constant.  The importance of the edge of the canvas, balance, color harmony, and working on the composition as a whole was his mantra, both to himself, and to his students.  Despite the diversity of his subject matter, through the years his paintings share a consistency in painterly style and purpose, attempting to convey his feelings and the effects of light through his application of paint.  The common denominator that factors into all Rosenberg's work throughout his career is the artist's emphasis on light.  It can be seen in the chiaroscuro of his early portraits, in the light and shadow of his genre paintings of Pittsburgh's urban landscape, and most predominantly in his later abstractions.  Light as the sole subject of his painting, however, did not take precedence until the early 1950s, when Rosenberg began his experiments with light and color exclusively in his search for a universal, and perhaps spiritual, truth.

When other artists were leaving Pittsburgh, and traveling to Paris or New York, Rosenberg made the conscious decision to remain at home where a national reputation would still be realized. His Self-Portrait of 1919, shows the confidence of the young artist as well as his early utilization of light.  His portraits of the 1920s are expressive, comprised of rapidly applied, multi-colored brush strokes that energize his sitters rather than merely depict them as his Portrait of Christian J. Walter of 1921 reveals. Rosenberg moved away from portraiture during the 1930s to create genre paintings of the black and Jewish neighborhoods in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, and cityscapes inspired by Pittsburgh's steep hills, densely polluted atmosphere, dramatically crooked houses dotting the hillsides, and the subtle, somber colors of the landscape that surrounded him. In God's Chillun of 1934, Rosenberg captures a lively scene from everyday life in the Hill District where a rally is commencing. Eviction, of 1935, dramatizes the impact that the Depression had on residents of the Hill. He enjoyed being a part of Pittsburgh and watching its transformation. In fact, many of his paintings serve as the only record of specific Pittsburgh neighborhoods before undergoing urban renewal.

With the shock of World War II in the 1940s, Rosenberg began to pay more attention to the quality of light in his work and his subjects became more allegorical, oftentimes with a religious quality, containing elements of Social Protest. Themes of human suffering, vanity, oppositions of life and death, hatred and passion, awe and wonder, youth and old age dominated. His canvases became more simplified; with large, broad areas of somber color, outlined in black, to create emotionally charged linear patterns.  In Bread No. 2 of 1943, the artist strongly demonstrates human suffering and the need for food during the war years and perhaps his awareness of events of the Holocaust as well. In his work of these years, he concentrated on repetitive themes as well as the persecution of the Jewish population in Europe, emphatically symbolized in his painting Israel of 1945, the immediate expression of a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders, whose spiritual and physical strength has been seriously tested.  His painting, A King of 1946, depicts the subject haunted by symbols of death swirling all around him.  Rosenberg's work of the late 1940s to the early 1970s grew increasingly abstract, as he formulated a new way to translate mood and emotion with color. As seen in Time Echoes of 1952, broken planes of luminous color, methodically layered on the canvas, evoke the effects of light as it passes through stained glass. Although some of his paintings appear to be totally non-objective, Rosenberg never completely dispensed with representation altogether, as there is always some reference to it, whether as a ghost image of the human figure in Personages, of 1964, or with some aspect of nature in his light-filled April No. 1 of 1969. In his last years, following his first serious heart attack in 1967, Rosenberg continued to experiment and develop his painting style, and thought he was finally coming into his own artistically.

Throughout his career, Rosenberg exhibited on a national scale, and participated in some of the most prestigious exhibitions of the century including San Francisco's Golden Gate Exposition and New York's World's Fair in 1939, and was selected by the Whitney Museum of American Art for inclusion in their early biennials.  His work was shown at the Museum of Modern Art, the Corcoran Gallery, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, among many others.  At the Carnegie Museum of Art, he was given two solo exhibitions, and participated in every Carnegie International exhibition from 1933 to 1967. After a full and productive career that spanned more than six decades, Rosenberg died in Pittsburgh in 1972.

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