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“The Flageolet Player on the Cliff,” Paul Gauguin
“At Rensselaer, I learned the importance of strict intellectual honesty in analyzing problems. It was responsible in shaping my career and other aspects of my life.”
“Until then I had experienced no discrimination at RPI, none at all. It was a wonderful experience. But then, Professor Stafford, my faculty adviser, came to me and said, ‘Sam, I am ashamed. But no recruiter will interview you because you are Jewish.’”

The starting salary for engineers was between $70 and $100 a week, and on his merits, Josefowitz should have been at the top end of the range. However, because there were so many Jewish engineers available who had not been able to get jobs, their rate of pay was substantially lower. He finally was able to get a job at $37 a week, running the night shift of a chemical plant producing acetone by fermentation of corn mash. Approximately six months later, he entered the research department of the company, working at night on the development of a process to manufacture butadiene, an intermediate for manufacturing synthetic rubber, sorely needed for the war effort.

After two years of this, he was offered an opportunity to work at Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute on a research program while taking post-graduate courses in the evening for his master’s degree in chemical engineering, followed by his work toward a Ph.D. in chemical engineering. Though his thesis was accepted and published in the Journal of Industrial and Engineering Chemistry, he never completed his Ph.D. “I was short one course in chemical equipment design. I never took the course,” he chuckles. “I figured that if I needed chemical equipment, I could go to the manufacturer to get it.”

He adds, “So you see, it’s a special reward to receive an honorary doctorate this year from Rensselaer.”

That honorary doctorate could just as well have been awarded in the arts as in engineering. An amateur who opened the eyes of professionals, Josefowitz was named an officer in the Légion d’Honneur by the president of the French Republic for helping the world to understand the significance of a group of long-overlooked French painters.

In 1951, Josefowitz attended a museum show in Paris titled “Carrière and the Symbolists,” but it was work by Carrière’s contemporaries that really struck him—Paul Gauguin and the painters who had followed Gauguin to the picturesque port town of Pont-Aven in Brittany in the 1880s and 1890s. This group, which included Émile Bernard and Paul Sérusier, rejected the Impressionists’ slavish adherence to the observed world. They had begun to move toward a more subjective and abstract art that didn’t rely on perspective and modeling, but instead on exuberant color and simple, curving shapes that reflected the artists’ personal vision of their subjects.

The leader of this “Group of Pont-Aven,” as it is now called, was unquestionably Gauguin, who until his stay in Brittany had been an Impressionist painter.

Josefowitz appreciated not only the beauty of this work, but also its bold experimentation that prefigured many of the developments of 20th century art. “There was such honesty of expression,” says Josefowitz. “There was no desire to show off or preach or politicize. Their essential interest lay in expressing the beauty of their subject and their reaction to it.”

Until Josefowitz started acquiring and studying these works, art historians had largely overlooked them and had written almost nothing about them. “The end of the 19th century was a revolutionary period in science and all forms of art,” he says. “There were such giants, just to name a few, as Wagner, Debussy, and Ravel in music, Zola, Baudelaire, Walt Whitman in literature, Seurat, Cezanne, van Gogh in paintings. They were all breaking new grounds in their respective fields.”

Josefowitz began seeking out works by these painters in the early 1950s. “I visited their families. The paintings were often rolled up in the attic and cut off the stretchers. No one had looked at them in many years.” Josefowitz remembers in particular a visit to the son of painter Paul Elie Ranson, one of the Nabis or “prophets,” a group of painters including Sérusier who furthered the concepts developed at Pont-Aven. “I bought five paintings from the son, and he was so happy that someone was interested in his father’s work.”

Suggest, however, that it took courage to trust his own eye and to buy art that no one else appreciated at the moment, and Josefowitz dismisses such grandiose praise. “Oh, not at all! The paintings were so inexpensive that it took no great financial decision or courage to acquire them.” Josefowitz adds, “I never bought a painting with the idea of reselling it. I bought it if it touched me, if I loved it, if I could afford it.”

He explains that “many of Gauguin’s paintings from Brittany were at the time still within my reach. While Gauguin’s works from the South Seas were already celebrated, the ones created in Brittany were, with few exceptions, not yet fully appreciated by the art world.” Yet it was in Brittany, surrounded by the other artists of the Pont-Aven School, that Gauguin developed his very personal style.

“Where Gauguin became Gauguin,” says Josefowitz, “was essentially in Pont-Aven.”

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Rensselaer (ISSN 0898-1442) is published in Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter by the Office of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY 12180-3590. Opinions expressed in these pages do not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or the policies of the Institute. ©2009 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.