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SUNDAY READING

Hanging With the Greats : In 1912, Mother Didn't Consider Art a Suitable Profession for a Husband. Today, My Father's Work Is Alongside Hopper's and Bellows'

March 09, 1986|JEAN SAPIN | Jean Sapin is a Sherman Oaks writer.

He was my father and he wanted to be an artist. Even as a child, bedridden with a broken ankle, he drew on every surface he could find. These included the backs of his mother's piano sheet music, old paper bags and the cast on his leg. But when he met my mother in 1912, things changed. Mother didn't consider art a suitable profession for a husband. So my father followed the more academic side of his nature, went to Cornell, and became a high school chemistry teacher and eventually a principal.

But he still loved to paint. For two months each year, Dad set up his battered sketch box along the New England coast, in the forests of the Adirondacks and White Mountains or amid the rugged scenery of Nova Scotia and the Gaspe Peninsula. One year he even transported all of us to Europe for six months (a sabbatical leave) and trotted us through an endless progression of Italian, French and British art museums. That was the year he painted his view of Mt. Vesuvius from Sorrento. "Too wooden!" I remember him complaining. "I just can't get that water to lie down."

He was always his own stiffest critic, and sometimes, when a painting wasn't going well, he'd urge me to finish it for him. "Go ahead," he'd say. "See what you can do with the darn thing. Maybe I should just give up painting altogether." But as hard as he was on himself, that's how easy he was on me. "This child is already a better artist than I am," he'd announce proudly to my mother. "Look at the freedom in that brush stroke."

Mother smiled indulgently at her two artists, but as soon as the closet filled with canvases, she gave them away to friends or threw them out. If it hadn't been for my devoted older brother who squirreled them out of the incinerator as fast as she placed them there and hid them under his bed, Dad's remaining oeuvre would be small indeed.

It is not remarkable, then, that I decided on a career in art. Art, Mother reasoned, was a suitable choice for a young woman, provided she did something secure with it--like teach. There was going to be no garret living for her daughter. In time my home grew from a one-room city apartment to a house in the suburbs, but wherever my husband and I lived, some of my father's paintings hung on the walls. Eventually, when the children were grown and money was more plentiful, works by better-known artists started to appear on the walls as well.

And then, a few months ago, two curators at the Laband Art Gallery of Loyola Marymount University telephoned and asked to come to our home. They were organizing an exhibition called "The Spirit of the City: American Urban Paintings, Drawings, and Prints, 1900-1952" (on view Feb. 18 to April 7), and had heard that we collected American art of the 1920s and '30s. Could they see what we had?

After carefully examining everything on the walls, they asked to borrow two works by well-known artists whose subjects embodied the urban theme of their exhibition. We agreed to lend. Then they paused to admire a small oil of Brooklyn rooftops, done in the late 1930s.

"And who painted this?" one curator asked. "I don't recognize the style."

"It was done by my father, Israel Goldfarb. He died in 1957, but he was an avid amateur painter all his life."

"May we borrow this one, too?" she asked. "It's so typical of the style and subject matter of the period--and it's very nicely painted." I assured them it was theirs.

Just a few days ago, the announcement of the forthcoming exhibition arrived in the mail. I tore open the envelope and eagerly scanned the list of artists included. There, big as life, was Dad's name, right under William Glackens. Preceding him, by not too great a distance, was George Bellows, and a few inches further on, the great Edward Hopper. Dad is in good company.

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