Alexander Bercovitch, arguably the father of modern Jewish painting in Montreal, was born in 1891 in a small port city near Odessa, in present-day Ukraine, into a family that was poor even by shtetl standards. He was given his first paints by a community of Ukrainian monks he had for years spied on through metal gates. By the time he was 15 years old, Bercovitch had already established a local reputation, and he created theatre sets and costumes. Bercovitch spent three years studying at Jerusalem’s Bezalel Art School, and later in Munich and St. Petersburg. He deserted the tsarist army shortly after being drafted during the First World War, and went into hiding until the Revolution of 1917. Bercovitch lived for several years in Turkmenistan, continually painting, until he ran afoul of the Communist authorities and relocated with his family in Montreal in 1926.
In Montreal, Alexander and his wife Bryna Avrutick, who had been a revolutionary back in Russia, maintained their radical politics, naming two of their children Ninel (“Lenin,” spelled backwards) and Sacvan (for the executed Italian anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti), who would later become a well-known American literary critic. Their first child, Sylvia Ary, became a well-known artist in her own right. Life in the immigrant Plateau neighbourhood was difficult for the impoverished Bercovitches during the 1920s and 1930s. Alexander left his family shortly after arriving, rejoining them six months later. When he left them for good in 1942, Sacvan was placed in foster care.
Upon arrival, Bercovitch earned some money doing ceiling work for local churches and synagogues. He also occasionally exhibited his own work from his years in Turkmenistan and more recent Montreal-themed canvases. He joined a roving band of artists, called the Eastern Group of Painters, which countered the explicit Canadian nationalism of the more-famous Group of Seven and its successor, the Canadian Group of Painters. Bercovitch was a teacher, mentor and harsh critic of a younger generation of Montreal Jewish painters, including Sam Borenstein, Moe Reinblatt, and Rita Briansky. He was famous as much for his classic Canadian paintings, like Laurentian Snow Scene (1938) and Gaspe: Cliff and Sea (1940), as he was for more Montreal- and Jewish-centered works such as the classic Laurier (1933), which he painted from his own balcony.
On January 7, 1951, Bercovitch collapsed of a heart attack while waiting for a streetcar at the corner of Mont-Royal and St. Laurent. He was en route to his first exhibition in 10 years.
Compiled by Richard Kreitner
Adams, Robert. The Life and Works of Alexander Bercovitch: Artist. Montreal: Editions Marlowe, 1988.
Klingenstein, Susanne. “The Meaning of America: Sacvan Bercovitch.” Enlarging America: the Cultural Work of Jewish Literary Scholars, 1930-1990. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse UP, 1998. 347-408.
Le Guillou, Andrée. The Art of Sylvia Ary. Ed. Sacvan Bercovitch. Trans. Michell Paterson and Malka Peyman. Fredricton, NB: Goose Lane Productions, 2008.
Trépanier, Esther. Jewish Painters and Modernity: Montreal 1930-1945. Montreal: Saidye Bronfman Centre, 1987.
Trépanier, Esther. Jewish Painters of Montreal: Witnesses of their Time: 1930-1948. Montreal: Éditions de l’Homme, 2008.
*Images courtesy of the Canadian Jewish Congress Charities Committee National Archives, Dr. Benjamin B. Gordon's collection, the Jewish Public Library Art Collection, Sacvan and Susan Bercovitch's collection, the National Gallery of Canada, the Musée d'art de Joliette, and Joseph Rappaport.