This text was prepared by Alec Mishory:
Yehuda Pen was born in Lithuania and lived most of his life in Vitebsk in the Belarusse. In 1881 he audited painting classes at the Imperial Art Academy in Saint Petersburg. In 1897 he founded a Drawing and Painting School in Vitebsk. Most of his students were Jews, including Marc Chagall, El Lissitzky and Ossip Zadkin. Pen painted mainly portraits of Jewish artisans, genre paintings of Jewish life and some landscapes.
Seated in front of his easel, holding a palette and brushes in his hands, the elderly looking artist makes contact with our eyes, as if telling us who he is. The array of portraits and visual personifications surrounding his figure stand for his models of inspiration and spiritual guides. Such a gathering is typical of a traditional theme expressed by late 19th century European artists. On the left, Venus pudica (Venus Medici), standing for Western Classicism; on the right, a skeleton playing a musical instrument, a probable reference to Danse macabre (the dance of death) motif, or a sign of approaching death. A muse plays a harp. A row of "spectators" in the background include a portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven and three other mentors, perhaps Russian painters Valentin Serov and Pavel Petrovich Chistyakov, whose classes he attended in Saint Petersburg.
Pen's portrait is a prime example of late 19th century Jewish artists' expression of the dual nature of their artistic creation: their cultural and style adhering to Western art principles while contributing some of their works to depiction of contemporary Jewish social and cultural aspects.