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 Jennings Tofel  (1891 - 1959)

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Lived/Active: New York / Poland      Known for: mod historical, symbolic and allegorical figure painting

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Isadore Tofel is primarily known as Jennings Tofel

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Jennings Tofel
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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
The following biography was provided by Steven Wasser, whose source is  www.AmericanJewishArt.com

According to art critic, Alfred Werner, “the pictorial world [Jennings Tofel] bequeathed to us, with its intensity, its mood of gravity, is one that only a Jewish refugee from Eastern Europe could have created.”[1]  The works of Tofel often portray anonymous human figures that emphasize hands and facial expressions.  His palette leans toward yellows, reds, blues, and greens.  Little attention is paid to clothing or backgrounds.

Count Antoni Adam Ostrowski invited Jewish weavers and entrepreneurs to settle in Tomaszów Mazowiecki in the 1820’s.  Jennings Tofel was born in this Polish town to a Jewish middle-class Jewish family on October 18, 1891 as Idel (Yehudah) Toflevicz.  His father, Yakob Yosef Toflevicz (b. 1864) was a woman’s dress tailor.  Tofel’s mother, Alta Haya née Berliner, died of typhus in 1899 after nursing a neighbor with the disease.  Tofel had three older sisters and three younger brothers.

Shortly before his mother’s death the seven-year old Tofel fell down attic stairs where he had been reading with his grandfather, Heshka. As a result of the fall, Tofel broke his shoulder.  It healed in an awkward position and for the rest of his life Tofel was deformed by a raised shoulder.  

After his mother’s death, Tofel was tutored in order for him to attend the prestigious Alexander School in Tomaszów.  He was admitted and in his first year won the award for highest honors in scholastic achievement.

Tofel’s father was restless and tried various means and locales to improve his lot, none of which were successful.  As a result Tofel had to leave school and finally, in 1905, when Tofel was 14, his father sent money for the family to move to America.

Although Tomaszów’s 10,000 Jews represented nearly 47% of the city’s population, the fate of the city’s Jewish community was tragic. At the end of October and early November of 1942 most of the city’s Jews were taken to Treblinka death camp and murdered.[2]

The Toflevicz family arrived in New York where Tofel received the name Isadore Tofel, which he later changed to Jennings Tofel, although he also used Yehudah as his first name.  In New York Tofel attended Townshend Harris Hall, a prestigious preparatory school established by the City College of New York.  Tofel entered City College in 1910.  Although Tofel had demonstrated artistic talent in Poland with nearly calligraphic writing, he did not begin to paint until college.  Tofel left college one semester short of graduation and worked as a bookkeeper in Newburgh, New York where his sister, Yetta, had settled.

“In 1917… Tofel was represented in a group exhibition at the Whitney Studio called ‘Introspective Art’ together with Claude Buck, Abraham Harriton, and Benjamin Kopman.

His first one-man exhibition came in 1919 at the Bourgeoisie Galleries. That same year, and for the next several years, he was represented in several group exhibitions… with artists including Oscar Bluemner, Gaston Lachaise and Joseph Stella…”[3]

In the early 1920’s, Tofel became friends with Alfred Stieglitz, who helped sell some of Tofel’s paintings and was helpful in obtaining a grant which allowed Tofel to travel to Europe in 1929.  During this visit, Tofel traveled to Tomaszów Mazowiecki where he met his cousin, Sura Perla Weissberg.  After only a few days of courtship they were married.

“In 1931 [Tofel] had a one-man exhibition at the SPR Gallery, New York, and in 1932 the Whitney Museum of American Art purchased “Hagar”. He was also represented in group exhibitions at the Jewish Museum in New York and the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, Ohio.”[3]

Due to the impact of the Depression, Tofel joined the Artist’s Project of the WPA in 1934.  The program’s administrator’s repeatedly sent Tofel’s paintings back to him and requested changes to make them more acceptable for display in public buildings.  Tofel resented this meddling with his work, and disliked the works he produced for the Art Project.  “After the project was terminated, its unassigned paintings were sold by the pound, in 1944, to the Roberts Book Store, in New York, which then offered them to the public at five or ten dollars each. A sympathetic collector bought all of Tofel’s paintings that he could find there and presented them to the grateful artist.  Tofel insisted on reimbursing him, and then, with the utmost relief, he and Pearl, armed with scissors, destroyed the hateful paintings.”[4]

Tofel was a tormented soul.  He was very self-conscious about his deformity and chose not to have children because he feared they would be uncomfortable having a crippled father.  With friends Tofel was outspoken to the point of losing some of his friends due to his strongly expressed opinions.  On many occasions Tofel submitted work for competitions, only to have his paintings returned.  Although he had a loyal following of collectors who bought most of his paintings, Tofel received little critical recognition during his lifetime.  Tofel’s left eye was surgically removed in 1940 due to a severe case of glaucoma, but his 20/20 sight in his right eye allowed him to continue painting. 

In 1959, the year of his death, Tofel was in declining health.  He wrote in his journal:
 
"They say the human form in art has been exhausted.  Not a shred of secret is left in its makeup.  But love would declare against such a dictum, and painting is a manifestation of love... There is no end of secrets: all depths may be plumbed, all heights attained through the human form and all of nature’s other forms." [5]

“In the last years of his life (1950–1959), Jennings Tofel exhibited at two-year intervals at the Artist’s Gallery… A retrospective exhibition was held at the Zabriskie Gallery in New York in 1964, and Tofel’s art was represented in the Art Dealers Association of America’s 2nd Annual Show at the Park Bernet Galleries. 

In 1976 Arthur Granick, a close personal friend and patron of Jennings Tofel, compiled a beautiful volume published by Abrams which contains 63 color plates and 129 black-and-white illustrations.  The George Krevsky gallery in San Francisco exhibited Tofel’s work in 2009.”[3]

Tofel’s work can be found in the collections of several museums, including the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, Ohio.

Footnotes

(1) Granick, Arthur, Jennings Tofel, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York, 1976, p. 13.
(2) JewishVirtualLibrary.org.
(3) Wikipedia.org.
(4) Granick, p. 30.
(5) Granick, p. 225.
(6) GeorgeKrevskyGallery.com.
(7) AskArt.com.


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