Jerusalem – Itshak Holtz, a well known artist whose depictions of Jerusalem, New York and their residents captivated Judaic art lovers, passed away this past Thursday at the age of 93.
Born in Skierniewice, Poland in 1925, Holtz was just five years old when he found himself mesmerized by a picture of a horse pulling a sleigh drawn for him by his father.
One year later, he realized that he had a talent for art when his chalk drawing of the Polish prime minister rendered on a sidewalk drew crowds of onlookers.
Watch below: Holtz in 2012, at the Betzalel Gallery in Crown Heights describes his work.
Holtz’s father Aryeh, a cap maker and a furrier, would wonder about his son’s future as an artist, never imagining that his paintings would one day draw prices of $100,000 or more.
Holtz and his family moved to Jerusalem in 1935, living in Geula. The young Itshak excelled at creating weekly drawings about the Torah portion of the week in school, continuing his studies at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design where he learned commercial art.
Yearning to become a fine artist, Holtz came to New York to further his education, but ultimately his heart pulled him back to Jerusalem where he began capturing the scenes all around him including ancient buildings, cobblers, tailors, weddings and other scenes that captured Jewish life in the holiest city in the world.
He would often set up his easel on the street and paint what he saw, crowds gathering around him as he worked.
Shmuel Pultman, director of the Betzalel Gallery in Crown Heights, knew Holtz for nearly three decades. He estimated that Holtz painted for more than 75 years, making a name for himself primarily as an illustrator of Jerusalem scenes and figure studies.
“He was, arguably, the most important contemporary Jewish artist,” Pultman told VIN News.
Holtz is seen May 17, 2012 at the Betzalel Gallery in Crown Heights sitting next to a wall where his art is shown. (Photo credit: Lenchevsky Brothers)
A religiously observant Orthodox Jew, Holtz lived his life according to Torah values and when complimented by admirers about his artwork he would respond that his talents were a gift from G-d.
Pultman said that the prolific artist followed a path of truth, honesty, simplicity and straightforwardness and was extremely generous with his time, advising young artists who would come to his studio for critiques of their work.
After living in Washington Heights for a period of time, Holtz and his wife Ruth began dividing their time between New York and Israel. One art collector who agreed to be interviewed on condition of anonymity and also shared an extremely close relationship with Holtz, described him as the epitome of sweetness, a diminutive man with talents of gigantic proportions.
Some of his work
“When you walked into his studio you knew you were in the presence of a master,” said the collector. “His artwork just talks to your soul and he captured Jewish life in a way that I believe no other artist ever has.”
Before moving to Israel permanently in 2010, Holtz gifted the collector with an easel that stands over eight feet high and his art desk, both of which bear the artist’s autograph. The easel has a place of honor in the collector’s dining room, along with three originals by Holtz.
some of his work
Holtz’s artwork was the focus of the Betzalel Gallery’s inaugural exhibition in May 2012, as previously reported on VIN News (http://bit.ly/2PW9bzC).
Holtz spent three hours autographing auction catalogs for the hundreds of people who attended the event which featured drawings and watercolors spanning a period of 50 years.
At the time, Holtz described the secret to his success in bringing his subjects to life in a way that resonated with Jewish art lovers saying, “you have to live that life to fully capture it on canvas.”
Moshe Frank, owner of Leviim Art Gallery in Crown Heights, said that he purchased his first Holtz after returning from a trip to Israel six years ago.
“It was a painting of a Meah Shearim scene with two people walking down the street,” said Frank. “I saw it in a gallery and it brought my whole trip back for me, so I bought it.”
Frank paid $800 for the print. He estimated that the original painting would sell for $50,000.
“He was the most expensive per square inch artist in the Jewish world,” said Frank. “Most of his paintings were not big paintings and they could sell for and have sold for over $100,000.”
Frank said that what set Holtz’s painting apart were their realism, their positivity and their use of vibrant color.
“People connect to that,” observed Frank. “He is the only artist we have ever had that people would call and ask if we had any of his paintings.”
Some of his work
Holtz’s artwork appears in some of the holiday artwork at the Jewish Children’s Museum in Crown Heights and his drawing of an elderly man with a full white beard intently reading a newspaper tops the My Take on the News column that appears weekly in the Yated Neeman.
Holtz’s drawing of an elderly man with a full white beard intently reading a newspaper tops the My Take on the News column that appears weekly in the Yated Neeman.
Frank said that he believes that Holtz’s most well known piece of work is a scene depicting an esrog market in Jerusalem, copies of which are sold as a succah poster.
“For me that picture really, really brings the spirit of the month of Tishrei,” said Frank. “You can feel Succos and Simchas Torah coming to town when you see it.”
Like Pultman, Frank recalled Holtz’s exceptional character, remembering one time when someone spent a significant amount of money on what he thought was an original Holtz only to find out that he had been duped.
“He heard about it and he told the buyer ‘come to my house and I will give you the original,’” said Frank. “He hadn’t even bought it from him and Holtz went and just replaced it. He was the most special guy in the world and that came through in his art.”
In his lifetime, Holtz was featured in multiple group shows and galleries in addition to being featured in one man shows in New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Jerusalem.
He was honored with the Academic of Italy Gold Medal (1981), Italy’s University de le Arti Terme Diploma of Merit (1982), the International Parliament for Safety and Peace’s Gold Medal for Artistic Merit (1985) and four awards from New York’s Arts Interaction (1989-1991), in addition to serving as a judge for the Arts Interaction 13th Annual Autumn Show at Gallery 12 (1991).
Holtz was laid to rest on Friday morning. He is survived by his wife Ruth, a son and a daughter.
“He left a legacy of thousands of paintings and was a gem of a human being,” said Pultman. “You don’t often meet people like that.”