A Life Cut Short: Edwin Kaufman, 1906-1939

Cleveland painter and print maker Edwin Kaufman was just 32 years old, and had already exhibited his work in several May Shows and established himself in New York when he died in a bridge collapse in 1939. CAN Journal recently heard from his sister, Bernice LePan, of Los Angeles, who is looking for a home for her collection of his work. The details of his biography offer a portrait of the artistic life in Cleveland when the city was bursting with people and energy. But who was Edwin Kaufman? And what might he have produced, had he not died so tragically young?–ed.


House and Trees, Long Island, oil on board, by Edwin Kaufman

House and Trees, Long Island, oil on board, by Edwin Kaufman

Edwin Kaufman was born in Cleveland on December 6, 1906. He began his artistic career at the age of seven at the Council Educational Alliance, before attending Central High School, whose curriculum was focused on art and design. He then entered the Cleveland School of Art, where he studied with Henry Keller. While he was still a student, one of his figure drawings was included in the 1927 edition of George B. Bridgeman’s book Life Drawing.

On graduation from the Cleveland School of Art in 1929, an oil portrait of his grandfather, executed two years before, won him the Agnes Gund European Traveling Scholarship, which enabled him to study and paint in Europe the following year. While in Europe he studied under Hans Hoffman in Munich and Heidelberg and Henry De Waroquier and Othon Friesz at the Academie de la Grand Chaumiere, in Paris. He also associated in Paris with Abel G. Warshawsky, a painter of Impressionist scenes, who had grown up in Cleveland and maintained close ties with Cleveland painters.

During the period from 1926 through 1937, Kaufman exhibited regularly and extensively at the annual May Show at the Cleveland Museum of Art—56 pieces in all, mostly etchings, but also relief prints, lithographs, drawings, watercolors and oil paintings. He received awards for his work in 1928, 1930, 1931 and 1935. While some were Cleveland scenes, most were figure studies or picturesque views of Europe or New York. In 1932 he also had a one-man show of etchings, lithographs and drawings at the M. H. De Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco.

Today the Cleveland Museum of Art holds 28 examples of his work, mostly prints, including a group given to the museum in 1942, a few years after his death. His work is also in the collections of Denison University, The Art Institute of Chicago, The Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

While Kaufman occasionally worked as a commercial illustrator, he seems to have generated much of his income from printmaking. Since prints were inexpensive, he found that he could sell them easily, as is suggested by an account from The Cleveland News (May 8, 1932) which reports:

At Provincetown in 1928 he ran out of money, not know that living came high at this popular artists resort. He hit on the idea of putting a sign in the window of his room, “Etchings For Sale.” This little stunt sold enough of his work to pay all expenses, and gave him $100 extra. Even today he receives requests by mail for his New England prints.”

New York City Domolition, Oil on Board, by Edwin Kaufman

New York City Domolition, Oil on Board, by Edwin Kaufman


During the 1930s Kaufman played an active role in a Cleveland print group, the Cleveland Print Makers, headed by Kalman Kubinyi. He also served as president of a short-lived print club, The International Print Guild, with its headquarters at 509 Fifth Avenue, which circulated a print a month by an international group of artists, including Sir D. Y. Cameron, Frank Brangwyn, Lucien Simon, Karl Hofer and such American artists as Adolf Dehn, Louis Lozowick, and Wanda Gag. Established in 1933, the organization lasted just a year before folding. He joined the New York branch of the WPA in 1935, for whom he produced etchings of New York, concentrating on the city’s bridges, harbors, and poorer working areas.

Along with his gifts as an artist, Kaufman was a celebrated cook, with such unusual specialties as cauliflower fritters, chaulnt and kasha, broiled shark’s fin, and spaghetti a la mode de Kaufman. While traveling through France, he often traded drawings for notable recipes at the restaurants he frequented.

This promising career came to an end in 1939, on July 24th. While returning to New York after a visit with his mother in Cleveland, Edwin Kaufman, his wife Sofia, and his son Abel, 2, were all killed while crossing a bridge over the Juniata River near Alexandra, Pennsylvania. The weight of a truck loaded with steel caused the bridge to collapse, toppling his car in the water with the truck on top of it. He was just 32.

If he had lived longer, would Kaufman have achieved fame as an artist? It’s hard to tell. Like many of his generation, he was caught between the realist traditions of the 19th century and the modern approaches being pushed by some of the figures he studied with, such as Hans Hofmann.

Kaufman’s best work is a curious blend of the 19th century picturesque, the social realism of the Ashcan School, and the bold patternmaking of the modernists he associated with in the thirties, such as Lozowick. In addition to his own artistic gifts, he clearly was an effective print dealer and organizer of artist’s groups, particularly the Cleveland Print Makers, which issued a number of the most notable American prints of the 1930s.

It’s intriguing and somewhat eerie to have his work resurface seventy-five years after his death; and a reminder that we should honor not only those who achieved great things, but those whose early promise was cut short.