“An Honest Day’s Work” The life of a Jewish immigrant, artist Jacob Pell

Tuesday, July 29 – Friday, August 29, Leon Family Gallery, Sandler Family Campus

Several months ago, Yeda Strasser, a beloved member of Tidewater’s Jewish community schlepped a large canvas bag into the Simon Family JCC’s cultural arts department. It was filled with albums, folders of fragile yellowed letters, programs of past shows, inventory lists of art, and thank you letters from various museums that now house Jacob Pell’s art work. Written over the course of 50 years, this correspondence offered a fascinating glimpse not only into the life of a prolific artist, but also into the life of an American-Jewish immigrant experience.

Jacob Pell (originally named Jacob Peltzman) was one of 10 children born in 1898 in a small Ukrainian village. He belonged to one of the fortunate families that managed to get out of Russia before the outbreak of war in 1914.

At the age of 15, his family moved to Brooklyn, where he helped support his siblings by sweeping floors in a garment factory. Fascinated with art as a boy, Pell began his formal training at the National Academy of Design, studying art in the evenings after work.

Under American masters Leon Kroll and John Sloan at the Art Students League, Pell avoided the first two years of the Depression by continuing his studies in Paris. While the United States was reeling with the market crash of 1929, Pell was in the world’s epicenter of artistic endeavors, the Left Bank.

Upon his return from Paris in 1931, Pell was chosen as one of the 2,500 artists across America to paint scenes depicting the country’s history for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) as part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. He worked from old engravings found in libraries and was paid $28 a week for his effort. Pell met his loving wife, Lilyan, a professional singer in New York, during this challenging period of American history and together they forged a love story that would span 56 years; working and struggling together, so that Pell could pursue his first love—painting.

Pell showed his work at the Corcoran Art Gallery in Washington, worked on many large murals projects and participated in shows in New York, Washington and Virginia. By 1938, his paintings were being acquired for the permanent collections of U.S. galleries, starting with the William Rockhill Nelson Gallery.

While in New York, it was the tenement and street scenes of the immigrant experience and Jewish life that caught his artistic eye. When he lived and worked in Connecticut during 1940s and early 1950s the lush, rural scenes of New England’s countryside appeared on his canvases. His uses of color and brush strokes show his kinship with French Impressionists such as Bonnard and Cezanne.

In 1955, he moved to Los Angeles and took up residence in the San Fernando Valley. While the majority of his work continued to emphasize landscapes, urban scenes and still life; Southern California offered new subjects of desert scenes, mountains and seacoasts imbued with more intense light and color.

In a 1977 interview by Josette Germain, Pell, at 80 years old, summed up his life and art in the way he lived it: “I feel that fame is accidental. I have never chased it. I think if I had gone looking for it, I would have missed the main pleasure of life—doing a useful day’s work at what I like best—painting.”

Jacob Pell died in March 1991. He was 93 years old and had painted for 75 years. His wife, Lilyan spent the last years of her life trying to promote his legacy. Her hand written letters reveal a passionate woman determine to share Jacob’s life work with the world. During much of his life, Pell was not interested in pursuing commercial art success; refusing to exhibit any work for the last 20 years of his life, many of his paintings remain in storage and on the walls of his family home. Painting six to eight hours each day, Pell left behind more than 1,000 paintings in various media. It was one of Lilyan’s last wishes to someday find permanent, museum homes for all of her husband’s work.

Because of her devoted efforts, Pell’s work has been accepted in more museum collections around the U.S., such as the archives of 20th Century American Art at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C., six of his etchings and drawings are in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, some are in the Hebrew Union College-Skirball Museum in Los Angeles, and in the New York City Public Library. Today, Jacob Pell, the young boy from the Ukraine, who said that he “liked to do an honest day’s work every day of his life” is listed in Who’s Who in American Art.

A small, personal collection of Jacob Pell’s art will be on exhibit at the Leon Art Gallery at the Simon Family JCC. This work has been generously offered by Yeda Strasser and her late husband, Daniel A. Strasser, who was Jacob Pell’s nephew.

Many of the paintings will be for sale. Inquiries should be directed to the cultural arts department at 757-321-2304.

Simon Family JCC is a constituent agency of United Jewish Federation of Tidewater.

by Sherri Wisoff

Letter to the Editor