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Inspirations: Art in Focus

Abraham Rattner, Fete Bretonne, 1923, oil on canvas

Published September 18, 2005

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Abraham Rattner, Fete Bretonne, 1923, oil on canvas, 36 by 283/4 inches. The painting is part of the permanent collection of the Leepa-Rattner Museum in Tarpon Springs.

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Artists, like everyone else, are influenced by the world around them and, even more, by their peers. Fete Bretonne illustrates how artists constantly appropriate ideas from each other and from the past in creating their own visions. Lynn Whitelaw, director of the Leepa-Rattner Museum, says, "Rattner was a sponge in his early years, using all the influences of other artists until he found his own style." The painting and its artist also offer another lesson. Abraham Rattner is an example of how quickly an artist celebrated in his time can become an art history footnote because of changing tastes and broader perspectives.


Abraham Rattner (1893-1978) grew up in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., the son of Russian Jews who came to the United States before he was born. For most of his adult life, he felt his spiritual home was France.

Rattner showed artistic talent in his youth and attended the prestigious Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts from 1916 to 1917. World War I was raging in Europe so he enlisted in the Army and was sent overseas. He was wounded during the Second Battle of the Marne but returned to the front and spearheaded a project to create life-sized silhouettes of soldiers that would mislead the Germans about troop numbers and deployment. Back at the academy after the war, he thrived and was awarded a fellowship to study in Paris. He didn't return to the United States for years. Even when he moved back in the 1940s because of World War II, he maintained an apartment in Paris, which he kept all his life.

Rattner's most successful period commercially was in the 1940s and 1950s, when prominent collectors regularly bought his paintings. He was a valued teacher at art institutes and universities and continued to paint prolifically, branching out into other mediums with commissions for stained glass installations and tapestries, for example, until his death. His first wife, Bettina Bedwell, died in 1947. His second wife, Esther Gentle, survived him. He had no children but was close to Gentle's son, Allen Leepa.


This painting was created in 1923 when Rattner was 30 and still searching for his own style. He was living in Paris, then a vibrant mecca for artists and writers. Among his pals were Pablo Picasso, Joan Miro, Man Ray, Marc Chagall and Henri Matisse, as well as writer Henry Miller.

You can see in Fete Bretonne the influence some of Rattner's contemporaries and earlier artists had on his work.

- The painting is of a scene in Brittany, located on the northwest coast of France, where Rattner vacationed a number of times. It is sometimes described as an homage to the post-impressionist French artist Paul Gauguin, who painted many Breton scenes. Three women loom large, wearing the traditional starched caps, embroidered jackets and white gloves of the region, taking up the entire foreground. Behind them, other villagers dance. In the distance are a village and rocky coast.

- The sky and sea, which merge in undulating blues and greens, hint of Claude Monet and his treatment of light on water. Rattner lived briefly in Giverny, Monet's home, and said he used to watch from behind bushes as the older man painted, "solid as an old tree trunk, holding his palette in one hand and swinging with his right arm . . . from one side of the canvas to the other."

- Rattner's colors aren't as vivid as the fauves, but you can see his interest in juxtaposing vibrant hues as Henri Matisse had done. Rattner's love of provocative color combinations continued throughout his career.

- The village in the distance looks a lot like Paul Cezanne's impressionistic landscapes, and the women's faces have a similar ethereal mysticism and sense of fantasy as those of Marc Chagall, a fellow Russian Jew. The same year Fete Bretonne was painted, Pablo Picasso created Woman in White, a return to figurative work after a preoccupation with cubism. Rattner and Picasso's women during that period share a monumentality and classicism.


Gauguin was linked to Rattner in a more tangible way. During a stay in Brittany in 1924, Rattner discovered murals beneath tattered wallpaper in an old inn. He learned that Gauguin had stayed there in 1889, shortly before his departure to Tahiti, painting in exchange for food and lodging, including dining room frescoes. Rattner bought the entire wall, had the frescoes cut out and shipped to Paris where he kept them for years, then sold them to a private collector in 1965.


Rattner's luck was to live amid great, swirling changes in art, surrounded by the best of the best. But a good artist such as Rattner was no match for the protean greatness of Picasso or Matisse. Rattner's art in later years also took on a highly emotional and religious tone. He responded to injustices with images of suffering and outrage that were unfashionable, even inexplicable to a world steeped in pop and minimalist art. Over time, Rattner may be rediscovered by new generations and given more respect, and perhaps sooner rather than later since art in this century seems less detached.


The Leepa-Rattner Museum, on the Tarpon Springs campus of St. Petersburg College, contains the largest holdings of work by Abraham Rattner in the world. Opened in 2002, it was founded by Rattner's stepson, Allen Leepa, who donated the work and several million dollars for construction and endowment. It also houses work by Leepa and his late mother, Esther Gentle, both artists, and a large collection of work by other artists Rattner collected, especially prints.

Having a museum spring from nothing with a large permanent collection is unusual but not uncommon. Most of them are single-artist museums, and Europe has a large number of them. America has a growing number of single-artist museums such as the Andy Warhol in Pittsburgh and the Georgia O'Keeffe in Santa Fe, N.M. Here, in addition to the Leepa-Rattner, the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg was stocked with an extensive collection of the Spanish surrealist's art and papers by donors A. Reynolds and Eleanor Morse.

Like most donors who give large collections, Leepa and his wife, Isabelle, wanted it to remain intact. They were turned down by many museums that wanted the liberty to sell off some of the work or couldn't commit to exhibiting it all together. The college promised it would never be dispersed and would be displayed permanently at the museum.

- LENNIE BENNETT, Times art critic

[Last modified September 16, 2005, 11:36:01]

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