Leonid Osipovich Pasternak

Leonid Osipovich Pasternak

1862 —1945

Leonid Osipovish Pasternak — was an incredible painter, master of genre compositions, talented graphic artist, Illustrator, and teacher. Leonid Pasternak was born on March 22 (N. S. April 3) 1862 in Odessa. His father, Joseph (Osip) Kivowitch Posternak, owned a small hotel. However, the big Jewish family did not have much money and lived a modest, humble life. Therefore, Leonid's parents were not especially enthusiastic when their youngest son, instead of thinking about a decent and profitable profession, has become deeply interested in drawing since his early childhood. Leonid Pasternak did not dare to go against the will of his father, but he could not forget about his dream to become an artist, so he had to lead a double life. In one life, — he was an obedient son and a diligent schoolboy, in the other — a student of the Odessa art school, where he relentlessly studied the basics of visual arts from 1879 to 1881. An aspiring young artist got his first commission from a local janitor, who wished to have some pictures on a hunting topic. Later, talking about this incident, Leonid Pasternak jokingly called that janitor "his Lorenzo Medici" and proudly remembered his reward. The janitor paid him 15 cents (kopecks) for the drawings. A guest of his father, Mikhail Freudenberg, has involved the young Pasternak to cooperate with the Odessa satirical magazines "Cricket" (Сверчок), "Lighthouse" (Маяк), "Bee" (Пчелка), which published illustrations and drawings of the novice artist. 

In 1881 the young man moved to Moscow. He entered the Moscow University medical faculty. However, a year later he transferred to law faculty in the same university. Then, in 1883, he continued his distance education at Novorossiysk University in Odessa. Leonid Pasternak did not give up drawing classess,—in 1882 he was visiting a private studio of E. S. Sorokin. Also, he was taking classes on etching with I. I. Shishkin. Taking advantage of the first opportunity, in the mid-1880s Pasternak went to study in Munich. Among his teachers were famous painters L. Herterich and Litsen-Meyer. He graduated from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts with brilliance, and a gold medal of the Academy has testified his brilliant virtuosity in drawing technique. To the delight of his parents in the same year, he received a law degree. However, he did not get a chance to use this diploma. 

Leonid was 24 years old when he met the pianist Rosalia Isidorovna Kaufman. She was only 18 years old, but she has already become famous for her excellent musical skills. Tormented by the thought that he had nothing to offer his beloved, the young artist went to Moscow. His first success was the painting "Letter from the Motherland" (1889), which Leonid Pasternak presented at the exhibition of the Artists-Wanderers (Peredvizhniki). The public had noticed the gifted artist even before the painting was completed, and Pavel Tretyakov, a famous collector and philanthropist, encountering the picture at the exhibition, immediately bought it for his collection. Inspired by the fame and a generous profit, the artist rushed to his one and only in Odessa. They got married, and a year later in Moscow, their firstborn was named Boris. To become genuinely and firmly established, Leonid Pasternak decided to open a private school of drawing — one of the first in Moscow. In 1893, at the 21st exhibition of the Association of Wanderers, Pasternak was presented to Leo Tolstoy. The great writer praised his painting "Debutante" (1893) and agreed to meet with the artist to get acquainted with his drawings. He liked them so much that Leonid Pasternak received an offer — to create illustrations for the novel "Resurrection". Besides, he was given a high honour — the genius of Russian literature entrusted Pasternak to paint his portrait.

A trip to Paris in 1889 has strongly influenced the artistic style of Leonid Pasternak. Even as a teacher at the School of painting, sculpture and architecture, where the artist was invited to take a position of a Professor in 1894, Leonid Pasternak continued to study and develop his own skills and attitude. He attended the evenings of collaborative drawing in the house of Vasily Polenov and the studio of Konstantin Korovin. The artist was mingling within the "Polenov circle" among its members such as I. I. Levitan, V. A. Serov, A. E. Arkhipov, M. V. Nesterov. In 1895, his painting "The night before the exam" (1895) received a gold medal at the world exhibition in Munich, and six years later it was acquired by the Luxembourg Museum in Paris. In 1905, Leonid Pasternak was elected a full member of the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts. His paintings were exhibited in Vienna, Paris and Dusseldorf, and in Russia, he participated in the exhibitions of well-known associations such as "World of Art" and the Union of Russian Artists. He painted portraits of many influential cultural figures, including Sergei Diaghilev, Fyodor Chaliapin and Sergei Rachmaninoff. He painted everywhere — at concerts, at a party, at home, on the street. In his numerous sketches, the artist seemed to be trying to capture moments of elusive time. With special pleasure, Leonid Pasternak created portraits of his children: Boris, Alexander, Josephine and Lydia. His friends were joking that in this family, children feed their parents, hinting at the success of the many children's portraits that Pasternak has painted. With a particular talent to grasp the details, Leonid Pasternak became a true master of quick drawing. The ideas of the Wanderers (Peredvizhniki), who were seeking to show the truth of life, were not close to Leonid Pasternak. He was interested in living in its momentary, and the primary impulse in creativity for him was the impression. The first of the Russian masters, Pasternak called himself an impressionist, not afraid of the sceptical attitude of academics to this, as they said, highly questionable trend.

Leonid Pasternak met the October revolution with enthusiasm. Driven by the impression, he painted the heroes of the revolution and portraits of Lenin. However, soon, a new era turned into a disappointment for the artist — life in Moscow was becoming increasingly difficult, and in addition, the wife's disease required serious and urgent treatment. With the assistance of Anatoly Lunacharsky in 1921, the family with two daughters went to Germany. Leonid Pasternak never returned to his homeland. Germany, not yet conquered by Nazism, opened new horizons in the artist's work. He worked tirelessly and flourishingly — he painted landscapes and views of Berlin and Munich, still lifes and interiors, portraits of scientists, artists, philosophers and writers of his time. Leonid Pasternak created portraits of Albert Einstein, Rainer Maria Rilke, Leo Shestov. In 1923 he published the book "Rembrandt and the Jewishness in His Work". Then, Pasternak started to work on his memoirs. In 1924, the artist undertook an adventurous journey as part of a historical and ethnographic expedition to Palestine. Two solo exhibitions of Leonid Pasternak were held in Germany in 1927 and 1932. Leonid Pasternak did not accept the latest trends in art — he called the German expressionists "mediocrity", and futurism and Dadaism considered "a temporary epidemic". Son of the artist Boris Pasternak noted that his father has always been faithful to the ideals of the XIX century and believed in the power of goodness and beauty.

With the arrival of the fascist regime, the Jewish artist's activities in Germany became too dangerous. The Soviet authorities refused multiple Pasternak's requests for a return to their homeland. In 1938, the family moved to their daughter in Oxford, England. The sudden death of his wife in August 1939 and the outbreak of war a week later seriously affected the psychological state of the artist. His last years were spent in an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty of the future. Leonid Pasternak passed away three weeks after the end of the war — May 31, 1945. In one of the last recordings made shortly before his death, the artist formulated the very essence of his work: "Sketches, pastels, drawings — that is the direct transfer of life. They fix, grasp life". 


Buckman, D. (1974) Leonid Pasternak: A Russian Impressionist 1862—1945. London: Maltzahn Gallery (n.d.). Пастернак Леонид Осипович — биография художника, личная жизнь, картины. [online] Available at: [Accessed 29 May 2019].

Salys, R. Leonid Pasternak Vol 1. The Russian years, 1875-1921 : a critical study and catalogue. Oxford : Oxford University Press, 1999.

Пастернак, Ж. (n.d.). Жозефина Пастернак. Биография отца.. [online] Available at: [Accessed 29 May 2019].

Пастернак, Л. (1975) Записи разных лет. Москва: «Советский художник»

Шалит, Ш. (2003). Возвращение блудного сына (Леонид Осипович Пастернак). [online] Available at: [Accessed 29 May 2019].