Artist, Sarah Ostrowsky Berman

Shelley Hornstein's picture

Two wonderful colleagues at Western University in London, Ontario, had the good fortune of accidentally discovering a treasure trove of paintings, drawings and archival documents by the New York artist, Sarah Berman (1893-1957) during a visit to a neighbour near Halifax, Nova Scotia.  I was delighted to be contacted by them to discuss how we could best showcase this collection.  At this point, we are reaching out to you and anyone who you would like to suggest to us to see if there might be interest by yourself, other colleagues or perhaps recent grad students, or post-docs to join us as we build a critical mass of scholars and curators interested in somehow being involved in this yet-to-be defined project.  We have a variety of ideas about how to begin -- however incrementally -- a process of bringing knowledge about Berman and her work to the fore.  This might consist of a small symposium or workshop, an exhibition, a session at a conference (AJS, CAA, YIVO, etc.).  Any assistance or ideas you might have will help us as we cast this net as widely as possible.  We also imagine this material stretching into the historical, philosophical, social and politcal realms and this would therefore mean that anyone you may identify who works across this period or geographic location, etc. would be of interest to us as well.  We are in the early stages and open to any and all suggestions.  Please contact me via this listserv or




American artist, Sarah Berman (1895-1957), depicted the everyday life of New Yorkers from the 1920s until her death in 1957. As a Jewish immigrant from the Ukraine, whose family fled from the Pogrom of 1905, the teen-aged Sarah Ostrowsky went to Philadelphia, earning her living as a seamstress in Philadelphia before moving to New York City in 1913. Around 1918 she married the Yiddish poet Levi Berman and the couple settled first in Harlem and later in Greenwich Village. Although her formal artistic training was limited – she attended life classes with the portraitist Robert Henri at the Anarchist Center in Harlem and had access to a graphics workshop run under the auspices of Works Progress Administration – Berman developed a highly idiosyncratic and visionary style for depicting the people she encountered. From waiting tables, getting a haircut and finding a thrift shop bargain to watching sideshows, dancing in jazz clubs and marching in protest, Berman’s subjects have a singular intensity that speaks to a particular time and place.


The art critic Henry McBride praised her “untrammelled imagination”, something the art historian Alfred Werner attributed, at least in part, to her own cultural marginality as part of a Jewish community that, during the 1920s and 1930s, “formed a curiously disadvantaged enclave” as “awkward outsiders in New York’s largely Gentile Art Establishment.”  Associated with leftist political circles as the founder and operator of the “Tea Room” on the premises of Manhattan’s Rand School with its connections to the Socialist Party of America, Berman portrayed a very different side of New York cultural life than many other female modernists of the period. In one painting a racially mixed audience stares at a half-dressed white woman on display in a circus sideshow, while in another a labour march occupies the front half of the canvas, while behind police separate two factions of protesters. This subject was largely lost to history until careful research into the title and date (Madison Square, April 1933) revealed an altercation between two groups of Jewish protesters in favour of and against boycotting products from Germany, now ruled by Adolf Hitler. To oversee the labour march, the police in Madison Square had been forced to divert their attention – a moment caught by Sarah Berman. Other quieter interior compositions document the enduring friendships that transcended class and racial lines and in immigrant neighborhoods during this period.


It should be stressed that during her lifetime, Berman was well known figure in the New York art world. She participated in numerous solo and group exhibitions, which are well documented in exhibition catalogues and critical reviews in newspapers such as the New York Times, and a number of her works have found their way into prestigious collections such as the Metropolitan, Frick and Smithsonian. Following her death, however, Berman largely disappeared from view.  Her oeuvre was left to her niece, Sophia Adler, who fearing that her aunt’s empathetic depiction of the underclasses and social realist style would attract unwanted attention in an era haunted by the McCarthy witch-hunts, hid Berman’s works in the family home on Long Island. Following Sophia Adler’s death in 2008, David, Randi and Adam Adler transferred it to the Halifax area and undertook an extensive cataloguing and archiving of the collection consisting of 200 paintings, 1000 works on paper, ephemera, newspaper clippings, sketchbooks and photographs. The collection is a truly stunning portrait of life in New York in the 1930s-1950s.[1]

[1] The Adler Collection includes original catalogs, publications and invitations from Berman’s exhibitions at various NYC Galleries, ca. 1920s-1940s; a 1980s MA thesis on some of her paintings written by Sara L. Cannon, then an art history student at UCLA; articles on Berman written by various notable early-mid 20th century American art critics; as well as original, hand-written exhibition invitations to the likes of "Ms. Helen Frick” and "Marc Chagall", who escaped from Paris to NY in 1939 and with whom she closely associated.