A portrait of the artist: Raphael Eisenberg
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A portrait of the artist: Raphael Eisenberg

Squirrel Hill resident and portrait artist Raphael Eisenberg reflects on seeing and being seen

Raphael Eisenberg self-portraits in oil. All works courtesy of Raphael Eisenberg
Raphael Eisenberg self-portraits in oil. All works courtesy of Raphael Eisenberg

While walking to synagogue for morning services, Raphael Eisenberg observed Alani. She was waiting for the bus. The following morning, again en route to prayer, Eisenberg saw her again standing on the corner of Phillips and Shady Avenues.

“She has a very interesting characterization,” said Eisenberg, an artist and Squirrel Hill resident.

In the days that followed, Eisenberg continued to notice Alani on his way to shul. Eventually he asked her if she would pose for a portrait.

“She found it interesting enough to get back to me,” he said.

After several sittings, Eisenberg rendered his subject’s dark eyes, pronounced brows and emotive features onto a 24"x 30" canvas. The 2019 oil painting, titled “Alani,” followed a process Eisenberg, 75, has utilized for decades: observe, request and produce.

“I’m always on the lookout for interesting subjects,” he said.

“Alani,” oil on canvas

Eisenberg has painted store clerks, bank tellers, subway riders, even fellow eaters at J Cafe, the kosher senior lunch program at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh.

“I try not to be shy because if so, you just don’t get the people that you need,” he said.

Eisenberg was drawn to portrait making as a child. He grew up in the Bronx, New York, and at the age of 6, he completed a profile of his father with pencil. The artist later returned to the subject and drew his father’s image with charcoal. Eventually, Eisenberg completed a clay full-size bust of his father’s head.

As a teenager, Eisenberg spent evenings and summers at the venerated Art Students League of New York, learning from legendary instructor Frank J. Reilly, before completing the BFA program at Cooper Union.

Tutelage and time generated an evolution in style. At first, Eisenberg painted “very literally,” he said. “The way that I was trained was an academic approach. Since then, I have looked and searched and found that there are other things that I want to put into my paintings — things that are not just a literal interpretation, but the sense of the person.” People carry with them more than their physical features – “a whole embodiment of spirit,” he said. “Nowadays, I like to try and capture that.”

While he is hesitant to describe his work as evolving from realism to expressionism, he is confident that he has made artistic advancement in one particular subject to which he frequently returns: himself.

Having painted numerous self-portraits during the last 40 years, Eisenberg said he “can follow the aging process. I painted myself in my 20s and I look a lot different now. You look at yourself and you see an old man.”

Eisenberg aims to create art that is “dynamic,” he said. “Since I was a student in school, I wanted my picture, if it was in a room, to be the only thing that grabs you.”

For that reason, Eisenberg often uses heavy brushwork and boldly colored backgrounds. It’s a means of demonstrating feeling, he explained: “When you encounter someone there are a lot of emotions, and it’s hard to get all of those emotions activated.”

“Self portrait,” oil on canvas

Utilizing vibrant colors in dress or scenery, or depicting an unrelenting stare from a subject’s eyes, call to mind the ideas of late American painter Albert Pinkham Ryder (1847 –1917), according to Eisenberg.

Said Ryder: “What avails a storm cloud accurate in form and color if the storm is not therein?”

Ryder’s point, Eisenberg said, was “what good is it if you get the clouds just right and you miss the thunder. You want to get some of the power of what it is to be alive and looking and seeing things.” Even though you cannot “put thunder in your painting, you have to put so much power into it that you can almost hear the thunder.”

Following that philosophy, Eisenberg is rarely worried that his subjects won’t appreciate their likeness. And, more often than not, “they are not commissioning the portrait. I paint it exactly the way I want it. It’s not their painting. They don’t have to pay for it. I do it the way that I want it to come out.”

After all, a portrait’s success isn’t judged by liquidity, he continued. "What guides my work is not what will sell. I’ve always been guided by what inspires and what will help me create a meaningful work of art.”

Having painted for nearly 60 years, Eisenberg’s works have been well-recognized. In 1977, his Brooklyn Museum curated exhibition, “Chassidic Artists in Brooklyn,” attracted nearly 10,000 people. Yet for all his New York success, Eisenberg has faced a tougher go-round in Pittsburgh. After moving here four years ago to be closer to his son and grandchildren, the artist still hasn’t found space in the local scene.

“The art world seems very contracted compared to New York,” he said. “There are very few opportunities to exhibit here. The few things that are here you have to be part of the in-crowd and have personal connections. I’ve found it very difficult.”

Eisenberg noted he’s shown several paintings at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh – Squirrel Hill, but hasn’t attracted the interest of local gallerists. He has been told his work would fail to attract potential collectors because “people don’t buy portraits of other people,” Eisenberg noted. But, “go to any museum,” he said. “Most of what you see is portraits. That’s what artists have been painting for millennia. Look at Rembrandt. Most of his work is portraits. El Greco, Goya, even Warhol, he had a whole series of portraits.”

The situation is frustrating, but not paralyzing, so Eisenberg continues his process of observation, request and production.

“There’s an excitement of encountering somebody,” he said, “and there are things, concepts — it’s very hard to put in words what it is that I find interesting — people who exude a certain spirituality or sense of self. They don’t have to be pretty or handsome or attractive people,” but they must agree to a live sitting. “I only paint directly from the subject. I only paint from observation.”

A single session may take up to six hours, but most are divided into three 90-minute periods.

“I like to paint and to keep my focus on actually seeing things,” because by doing so “if you create something that comes from deep within you, if it’s successful, it will communicate and other people can relate to it and empathize with it, and it will touch them in some meaningful way.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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