1868 – 1919
Ira Jan (the professional name of Esphir Yoselevitch), a painter and writer, was the first Hebrew artist in pre-State Palestine. She was born on February 2, 1868 in Kishinev, the capital of Moldavia. Her father, Yosef Yoselevitch, was a well-known lawyer in the city, active in Zionist causes, and a member of the Hebrew Language Association.
At the age of sixteen, Ira Jan, who displayed talent as an artist and writer at an early age, was sent to the Institute of the Arts in Moscow, which was founded in the nineteenth century and considered an innovative, revolutionary institution compared to the State Academy in St. Petersburg. Her teachers included leaders of The Wanderers movement, who sought to bring art to the masses by holding traveling exhibitions throughout Russia. The Wanderers studied works of folklore and populist motifs, painted, sculpted, and composed music for and about the people. Among Yoselevitch’s teachers was Vasily Polenov (1844–1927), one of the first artists in Russia to call for painters to leave the confines of the studio and create in the midst of nature.
Painting in a natural setting was a new form of art in the late nineteenth century, requiring different techniques from painting in the studio, and it was these techniques that Yoselevitch learned from Polenov. At the Arts Institute she also studied paintings of still lifes and models. She may also have studied under the painter Leonid Pasternak (1862–1945), who was living and teaching at the Institute at the time. Ira Jan received various awards for her work, among them first prize from the Institute for her painting “Faded as a Dream,” which portrays a wealthy old woman unraveling her bridal veil and observing life with a sober expression while her granddaughter plays beside her. (This painting was acquired by King Ferdinand of Bulgaria and displayed at the Bulgarian National Museum for Foreign Art as part of an exhibition entitled “The Influence of Russian Painting on Bulgarian Painting” in honor of Vladimir Putin’s visit to Sofia in 2003.)
After graduating, Ira Jan traveled to Paris for additional studies; among her teachers there was Raphael Collin (1850–1916), an art collector who specialized in painting models. It was apparently with him that she learned to paint portraits and nudes. Collin was the friend of such renowned contemporary artists as Fernand Cormon, who opened a modernist art studio in Paris in the mid–1890s where several major artists studied, among them Vincent Van Gogh and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Boris Schatz (1866–1932) also continued his studies at Cormon’s studio, and it is there that he may first have met Ira Jan. Alternatively, it is possible that she was introduced to Schatz at the studio of Russian sculptor Mark Antokolsky (1842–1902), where Schatz studied sculpture. She was friendly with Antokolsky, later writing a biography of him that remained in manuscript form and was apparently lost during World War I.
In Paris her work impressed art collector Gustave Dreyfus (1837–1914), one of the great collectors of Renaissance art. He commissioned paintings from her during her time in Paris as well as years later when she was already living in Palestine.
Following her Paris period, Ira Jan went to Bulgaria, apparently on the recommendation of Boris Schatz, and opened a private art studio in Sofia where students were taught not only the actual craft of painting but also a large amount of theory on the role and objectives of art in society. She granted her students great artistic freedom, which represented a significant breakthrough in Bulgarian art. She was even the first in Bulgaria to teach nude painting using live models; several of her students went on to become major painters in Bulgaria during the first half of the twentieth century. In late 1897 Ira Jan organized an exhibition in Sofia of her students’ works, modeled on the exhibits that were customary at the Arts Institute in Moscow. She also displayed their works, which were marked by a well-executed realistic line, at three general exhibitions mounted in Bulgaria.
In 1899 Ira Jan left Bulgaria and returned to Russia, where she married the bacteriologist Dr. Dimitri Slepian, a revolutionary who belonged to the Social Revolutionary (SR) party and was active in party affairs. Not long after their marriage, their daughter Lena was born in Kishinev.
During this period, Ira Jan continued to paint and to illustrate books, a field that became popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as a result of the publication of stories and serials in magazines and the daily press. A number of her drawings and illustrations were printed as postcards.
In April 1903 a pogrom took place in Kishinev during which scores of Jews were murdered and hundreds of stores and businesses looted. The young poet, H. N. Bialik, living in Odessa at the time, was sent to Kishinev by the Jewish Historical Commission to report on the riots and record his observations. Bialik remained in Kishinev for five weeks, meeting in the evenings with the community’s leaders and intellectuals, among them Ira Jan and her father, Dr. Yoselevitch. It was apparently in Kishinev that Ira Jan and Bialik, who was also married, met for the first time. Following his visit to Kishinev, Bialik secluded himself for five months in the Korostyshev forest, where he wrote the poem “Be-Ir ha-Haregah” (In the City of Slaughter). The poem was immediately translated into Russian and Yiddish and had an enormous impact. Bialik, who until then had been a relatively unknown young poet, became widely admired and was invited to Warsaw to serve as literary editor of the journal Ha-Shiloah.
Warsaw, a thriving Jewish literary center, was also home to the writer I. L. Peretz. At the time, some of his works were being translated into German as a way of introducing Western Jewish maskilim to the nature of the shtetl and its inhabitants. On the recommendation of Boris Schatz, Ira Jan was invited to illustrate the German edition of I. L. Peretz’s stories. She drew doleful figures—porters and tailors, orphans and heder pupils—conveying the life of the shtetl in an excellent realistic style.
While illustrating Peretz’s stories, she apparently again met Bialik in Warsaw and the relationship between them intensified. When he returned to Odessa a year later, Bialik proposed that she come there to paint his portrait and, later, illustrate his poems. In the course of the portrait painting, his neighbors and friends, the intellectuals of Odessa, noted the relationship between them and attempted to end it. Upon Ira Jan’s return to Kishinev, Bialik sent her letters with instructions on how to illustrate his poems along with requests to see her again. In 1905, inspired by their relationship, Bialik wrote some of his most beautiful love poems, including “Hakhnisini Tahat Knafekh” (Take Me Under Your Wing), in which he seeks to reveal the secret of his life and laments that the stars deceived him. In their exchange of letters at the time, Ira Jan asserted that it was not the stars that had cheated him but he who had cheated the stars, in that he was not living in accordance with his emotions. After her husband was arrested for revolutionary activities and exiled to Arkhangelsk, she embarked, together with her daughter Lena, on a series of visits and gallery tours in Switzerland and France. While in Switzerland, she illustrated Bialik’s poems, among them “Megillat ha-Esh” (The Scroll of Fire), which she also translated into Russian. There are those who consider this translation, which Bialik corrected, edited and annotated, to be a mutual declaration of love, for it is surprising that the exacting, meticulous Bialik, who rejected and modified the translations of the greatest writers, consented to have Ira Jan translate his most complex work and even pen an introduction to it. While working on the translation and introduction to “Megillat ha-Esh,” she painted “Jesus and Faun,” representing innocence and purity as opposed to chaos and lust.
In August 1907 Ira Jan attended the Eighth Zionist Congress at the Hague. Bialik was also invited and they met there. The writer Reuben Brainin (1862–1939) was invited to join them at one point; sensing Bialik’s excitement in Ira Jan’s presence, Brainin wrote of it with both compassion and mockery, emphasizing that Bialik was a cold, calculating figure whose image was extremely important to him.
In 1908 Ira Jan immigrated to pre-State Palestine, after Boris Schatz invited her to teach at the Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts and even provided her with a flat at 5 Ethiopia Street, the first site of the art institution. Rahel Yanait (Ben-Zvi) lived nearby and the two became close friends. Through her and her husband, Izhak Ben-Zvi, Ira Jan became acquainted with the members of the Ha-Shomer self-defense organization and with young laborers in Jerusalem and was also introduced to Yehoshua Eisenstadt-Barzillai (1854–1918) and Dr. Naphtali Weitz (1866–1935), director of Rothschild Hospital. Jerusalem at the time was a religious city, most of whose inhabitants lived off the halukkah (charitable donations sent from abroad). Non-religious pupils generally studied at French or German schools. In order that her daughter might benefit from a Hebrew education, Ira Jan became one of the initiators and founders of the Gymnasia ha-Ivrit secondary school in the Zikhron Moshe neighborhood, even writing in her memoirs that Russian Jews who wished their children to receive a Hebrew education could send them to this institution. She also taught drawing and sketching on a volunteer basis at the school.
During this period Ira Jan played an active role in shaping Jerusalem’s intellectual and cultural life. She wrote for Eliezer Ben-Yehuda’s newspapers and Ha-Po’el ha-Za’ir, criticizing corruption, cultural shallowness and the halukah. When the Gymnasia ha-Ivrit ran into financial difficulties some two years after its founding, Ira Jan moved with her daughter to Tel Aviv so that Lena could continue her studies at the Herzlia Hebrew Gymnasia. In Tel Aviv, she taught art classes; among her pupils was Nahum Gutman, who later wrote of her with great affection.
In July 1914, several days before the outbreak of World War I, Lena traveled to Russia for a family visit following her father’s release from prison. Once the war started, she could not get back to Palestine since it was under Turkish rule and Russia was considered a hostile country. The residents of Palestine were ordered to become Ottoman subjects. Those who refused, among them Ira Jan, were exiled to Egypt. Before being taken to the deportation ship, she managed to hide all of her large oil paintings in the attic of Avraham Brill, an official of the ICA (Jewish Colonization Association). In Egypt, she was housed with hundreds of refugees in a camp near Alexandria. There, far from home and without any work or means of support, the tuberculosis from which she had long suffered worsened. Lena sent numerous letters and postcards to her mother, describing how much she missed her, writing also of her studies and her marriage to Anatoly Shapira. These moving letters were Ira Jan’s sole consolation in Egyptian exile.
When the war ended, Ira Jan was one of the first refugees to be returned to Palestine from Egypt, owing to the intervention of Rahel Yanait, Dr. Ya’akov Thon (1880–1950) and Dr. Weitz. Upon her return, she learned that all her paintings, including some that had been displayed at international exhibitions, had been lost or stolen. A few months after returning to Palestine, Ira Jan died in Tel Aviv in a state of deep sorrow on April 24, 1919. Boris Schatz, who designed her gravestone, proposed the establishment of a chair in drawing in her name at Bezalel. Her masterwork, “Jesus and Faun,” was bequeathed in her will to the Tretiakov Gallery in Moscow. It is possible that some of her paintings are also in Bulgaria.
Govrin, Nurit. Honey from a Rock: Studies in Pre-State Israeli Literature (Hebrew). Tel Aviv: 1989.
Yanait Ben-Zvi, Rahel. Ira Jan (An Album) (Hebrew and English). Jerusalem: 1965.
Idem. We Are Going Up (Hebrew). Tel Aviv: 1960; Shamir, Ziva. Her Hidden Trail: Traces of the Ira Jan Affair in the Work of Bialik (Hebrew). Tel Aviv: 2000.
Journals and Daily Press
Abadi, Imré. “Jewish Artists in the Holy Land” (Hebrew). Avar ve-Atid: Yarhon Yehudi le-Sifrut, Omanut, Hevrah u-Vikoret (Budapest, June 1914).
Govrin, Nurit. “From the Diary of a Jerusalem Woman: The Painter Ira Jan as a pre-State Palestinian Storyteller” (Hebrew). Iton 77, No. 46 (October 1983).
Ira Jan. Assorted articles and stories in Ha-Or, Ha-Po’el ha-Za’ir and Ha-Shilo’ah.
Meroz, Tamar. “A Love Story” (Hebrew). Haaretz, December 15, 1972.
Mikhalcheva, I. “A Brief History of the Painter Esphir Slepian” (Bulgarian). Yedi’ot ha-Makhon le-Omanut Hazutit (Sofia, 1958).
Shamir, Moshe. “Bialik’s Love” (Hebrew). Moznayim 36, no. 1 (1973).