March 11, 2021

Artist Profile: Moise Kisling (Polish/French, 1891–1953)

Jay Kapadia

France, like many European countries at the turn of the 19th/20th century, was a nation riven by social and political pressures. Heated Nationalism became the binding agent for citizens; in France it was marked by clericalism and anti-Semitism as two keynotes. The Dreyfus Affair, a case where a Jewish French military officer was tried and wrongly convicted of espionage, stoked the widespread and lingering animosity against the Jewish population in the country, and from it came an existential inquiry as to whether one can be Jewish and a Nationalist, or in the case of Möise Kisling, Jewish, a citizen, and a modernist.

After showing a proclivity towards drawing from a young age, Kisling’s parent positioned him to be an engineer, however, he chose to enroll himself at the Krakow Academy of Fine Arts instead. The Polish art scene at the time was heavily influenced by alumni from the Munich School, which focused on naturalism and historical painting. In contrast, Kisling was trained in Impressionism, and eventually moved to Paris in 1910 at the encouragement of his teacher. 

Moïse Kisling, c.1916

With the assassination in 1914 of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, France was drawn into the tumult of a new pan-European conflict. Identifying with a newfound kinship as a denizen of Paris, Kisling enlisted in the French Foreign Legion. He was seriously injured at the Battle of the Somme, honorably discharged, and granted French citizenship in 1915. Upon his return to Paris, Kisling took up residency in Montparnasse, living in the same building as Amedeo Modigliani, where the two became steadfast friends.

Amedeo Modigliani , Portrait of Moïse Kisling (1915),Milan, Emilio Jesi collection


Similar to many people at the time, Kisling traveled to various rural parts of France in order to have a respite from the urban hustle-and-bustle of Paris, favoring in particular the small town of Céret in southern France, then a well- known retreat for artists; it was eventually given the moniker The Mecca of Cubism. Not a Cubist himself, his compositions took on a compact yet color-charged theme indicative of his Slavic origins. Though he embraced both aesthetic tendencies, Kisling could only tangentially be associated with the Post-Impressionist and Cubism stalwarts.

Moise Kisling (French/Polish, 1891–1953), Still Life (Poppies), Oil on Canvas, 1938, Available on iGavel Auctions until March 16, 2021

With an approach similar to the Purists and Orphists, Kisling’s oeuvre became a definable off-shoot from the Cubists, leaning more and more towards what is now called the Ecole de Paris. In the example “Still Life (Poppies)”, we get an inkling of a sense of Post-Impressionism, but one imbued with linear stylization. Retaining a sparse and unfussy outline, Kisling’s poppies never wander into a simply decorative, vacuous void. The ebullient petals blooming in various reds ease the viewer into a glimpse of Kisling’s academic school days, emphasizing the importance of intention, consistency, and cohesion as expected of himself. 

After the Vichy Government was installed in the 1940s, much of the Jewish population faced deportation. With the traditional French military disbanded, and under threat of arrest for being anti-fascist, Kisling and his family immigrated by the way of Lisbon, Portugal to the United States, where he split his time between New York and Southern California. By the time of his exodus from Europe, he had an established collector base and was marketed as a painter with “unflagging zeal.”  In 1941, Kisling exhibited his paintings at the Whitney Museum of Art and had a solo exhibition at the James Vigeveno Gallery in Westwood Hills, Los Angeles in 1942. Roughly a year after WWII ended, Kisling and his family returned to France, where he died in 1953.

His work can be found in various public museum collections, including the Harvard Art Museum, British Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Tokyo’s Fuji Art Museum, the Israel Museum in Jerusalem and the Musée du Petit Palais in Geneva, among others.