The Jewish Painters of Montreal refers to a loosely affiliated group of Jewish artists, spanning three generations, who produced work from the early 1930s until the early 1950s.
The name “The Jewish Painters of Montreal” was first coined by Quebecois art curator and historian Esther Trépanier, while she was working on a 1987 group exhibition of their work for the YM-YWHA (Young Men’s – Young Women’s Hebrew Association). Due to their varying age and affiliations with other art collectives throughout Montreal, the artistic styles of the collective vary widely, ranging from a radical social realism to a dramatized expressionism. Nonetheless, these artists captured a moment in Montreal’s history, united in their portrayal of the downtown working class and the city’s urban landscapes, as well as their Eastern European leftist idealism.
Each of the painters was either a recent immigrant from the shtetls of Eastern Europe, or a child of those same immigrants. As such, the artists and their cultural production reflect an international Jewish sensibility previously unseen in the Canadian art scene. The early generation of established Jewish artists included painters Alexandre Bercovitch (1891-1951), Eric Goldberg (1890-1959), and Bernard Mayman (1885-1966). The second generation of artists included painters Sam Borenstein (1908-1969), Louis Muhlstock (1904-2001), Ernst Neumann (1907-1956), Fanny Wiselberg (1906-1986), and Jack Beder (1910-1987). The third generation included Sylvia Ary (1923-2011), Rita Briansky (1925-), Ghitta Caiserman-Roth (1923-2005), Moses (Moe) Reinblatt (1917-1979), and Alfred Pinksy (1921-1999).
The Jewish Painters of Montreal depicted the social realities of their day, often reflecting on the hardships and inequalities that faced Jewish immigrants. The socialist slant of the artists’ work also responded to anti-Semitism, both in fascist Germany and Quebec, where the restrictive Padlock Act threatened to have any building associated with communism or bolshevism shut down for a year, and socialists and communists thrown in jail. Moses Reinblatt enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air force in 1942, and was an official Canadian war artist by 1944. Alfred Pinsky was a union representative within the Royal Canadian Navy. Many of the painters, such as Louis Muhlstock, depicted the workers behind the war effort more than the soldiers in action. Muhlstock’s Female Worker, Rear View (1943), for example, depicts a female factory worker dressed in workers apparel to depict the gender equality of work and occupation during periods of war.
By the early 1930s, many of the painters had become well-known and well-respected in the English press. The exhibitions put on by the YM-YWHA garnered positive reviews from critics throughout Canada. By the late 1940s, artists Bercovitch, Muhlstock, Neumann, and Reinblatt had all exhibited at the Royal Canadian Academy of Art. In 1959, the Jewish Painters of Montreal were presented at the Montreal Museum of Fine Art’s exhibition Works by Canadian Jewish Artists. More substantial fame with Trépanier’s curated exhibition of their collective work. This renewed attention led to the acquisition of over 150 of their works by public institutions including the National Gallery of Canada, The National Archives and the National Museum of Fine Arts in Quebec.
Trépanier credits this collective with helping to re-establish Canadian art as being worthy of international attention, noting, “The artists of the Jewish community not only helped to define cultural modernity in Quebec and the rest of Canada during the interwar period, but have continued to enrich and enhance the originality of its development ever since.”