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Isaac (/Yitzchak) Alexandre Frenkel Frenel was an Israeli-French painter and sculptor regarded as the father of modern art in Israel.​ One of the most important Jewish Painters of the École de Paris; he is credited with introducing Modern Art to Israel which was until then dominated by Orientalism. 

Exhibiting around the world, he would gain international recognition for his work during his lifetime.

isaac frenkel frenel photograph


Isaac Frenkel was born in the summer of 1899; a great-grandson to Rabbi Yitzhak Levi of Berditchev [10].  He spent his formative years in Odessa, the Paris of the East during the late 19th century. It was a hub of Jewish culture in Eastern Europe, attracting numerous writers, artists, and ideologists. It was home to central figures of the Jewish intelligentsia, which produced many giants of Jewish Society.

While growing up, he would sometimes listen to Bialik during the Sabbath, since he lived near Bialik’s and Rawnitzki’s publishing house “Moriah”.
He studied in a Yeshiva during his youth, where he met Chaim Gliksberg. Later he studied art under Aleksandra Ekster
[10], the Russian Avant-Garde artist, at the Fine Arts Academy of Odessa [12].

But the atmosphere was hardly quiet, waves of terrible Jewish pogroms and a Russian civil war taking place. A friend and classmate of Frenkel, Joseph Constant, lost his brother and father. He and Frenkel would board the Ruslan ship[10] in 1919, which would earn the name “Mayflower” of Israel for having brought to mandatory Palestine future pioneers of Israeli culture. Frenkel stepped off the ship onto the historic port of Jaffa. There, along with fellow artists (Joseph ConstantHadgadya, and others [10]), he founded The Artists’ Cooperative (HaTomer)  and opened an artists’ studio in Herzliya Hebrew Gymnasium; teaching art, sculpture, and painting [8][12]. In 1920, he set out for Paris, on the way stopping in Egypt to exhibit his work in Alexandria. 


At the epicenter of the art world, Frenkel, like many young and ambitious artists of his generation, slept at times under the bridges [10] of the Seine in Paris and worked various side jobs to survive. It is said that the starving painters even threw their canvases into the fire to warm their homes during the harsh winters for lack of money. However, his time in Paris was far from unfulfilling. 

Thanks to a scholarship from Baron de Rothschild, he was able to learn at École des Beaux-Arts [10]. He would learn sculpture at Bourdelle's and art in the studio of Matisse [12]His paintings adorned exhibitions in the Salon des Indépendants, alongside others such as Chaim Soutine, one of Frenkel’s colleagues and a fellow École de Paris artist. Both were noted by the art critic Waldemar George. In 1924, the Dutch painter Piet Mondrian bought two abstract paintings from an English collector [6]. In 1925, despite warnings (the art critic Waldemar George told him “Do not return to Palestine, they will eat you there”), Frenkel returned to Mandatory Palestine where his parents, younger brother, and older sister had arrived two years prior.

In Palestine, he would bring the winds of modernism and change to the outdated late 19th century style practiced in the region.  He caused an upheaval, going against the old Orientalist style of the 19th century adhered by the Bezalel school of art. The Histadrut Art School in Tel-Aviv, which he opened in 1926 [2][3][4][5][7][8][10], presented a brave modernist alternative to the conservative Bezalel School which considered him extreme. Despite society's initial reluctance from the radical spirit of his art, it gained unstoppable traction. Many Bezalel students, thirsting for the modernistic revolution, flocked to Frenkel. His notable students were Avigdor StematskySiona Tagger, Shimshon Holzman, Mordechai LevanonJoseph KossonogiArie Navon, and more [10]. All who studied under the Maestro, as he was called, took in the influence of the modern styles of France. Frenkel inspired his students to venture forth themselves to France thus bringing forth a new generation of modern artists to Israel.


As he taught, he continued to exhibit and create. He worked for the theatre, designing costumes and theatre pieces. In 1926, as a response to the Tower of David Exhibition, Frenkel and his pupils presented in the Ohel theatre the “Modern Artists” exhibition[11] showcasing geometric abstract compositions as well as landscapes, amongst these was the famous “Connection without Objects” (חיבור ללא עצמים) painting (the first abstract painting exhibited in Mandatory Palestine [8]). Its revolutionary and pioneering aspects sent shockwaves through the art circles of nascent Hebrew Yishuv.

In 1927, he exhibited artwork in the school Lebanim in Tel Aviv, one of these artworks is noted as the piece that marked the victory of the modernist art movement of the École de Paris over the conservative Bezalel movement


In 1929, the global economic crisis led to a significant reduction in income for various projects in the region. The Bezalel School closed (resumed activity in 1935) and so did the Histadrut Art School [10], leading Frenkel to lose his job which worsened his already hectic personal life. In France, Frenkel found it difficult to find commercial success and the family was very poor. These years did prove fruitful for the artist. [He began to work on frescos and occasionally paint in a more realistic style.] The economic situation forced contemporary artists to take on commissions which required Frenkel to paint in a more realistic manner. Furthermore, he also made decorations and sets for French cinematography.

The 1930s were a turbulent time in Europe. Sensing an ominous shadow spreading through Europe, he advised his Jewish friends and fellow artists to leave the continent. He himself stayed in Israel during the entirety of the Second World War.

Frenkel, his second wife and son returned to mandatory Palestine in 1934.


On board the Roslan, envoys of the Yishuv, stuck during the war in Europe, recounted to Frenkel stories of Eretz Israel. A particular city - Safed, left a mark on the young man's mind. Arriving in Palestine, he felt he did not find Eretz Israel of the bible in Jaffa and therefore traveled to Jerusalem. Still, he felt unsatisfied. During the winter of that year, 1920 legend says he traveled with a donkey to Safed, it is said that a fog settled on the mountain city. The lights of the city and the mountain, so foreign to his native plains surrounding Odessa enchanted the young artist. Ever since Safed's mysticism held Frenkel's heart.

In 1920, Trumpeldor and his comrades were attacked in Tel Hai. Frenkel and others rushed to Tel Hai to help. Alas, they were too late. Frenkel, perhaps sensing the historical weight of the event began to paint, recording Tel Hai in the aftermath of the battle.

Frenkel settled in Safed in 1934 after having visited frequently since early 1920. It is worth noting, however, that he would spend his time between Safed and Tel Aviv (or other locations in the country).


He is amongst the first of the wave of renowned artists to make Safed/Tzfat his home. The city features heavily in Frenkel’s work, its mystic spiritual aura had a profound effect on the artist. In 1949, was of the founders of "The Artists Colony" in Safed [10][12]


The 1930s were characterized by the flourishing of Tel Aviv into the heart of the Hebrew enterprise in Mandatory Palestine. Frenkel would become an integral part of the Bohemian scene of the young city. Like in almost every city of culture, cafes were an integral part of the life and urbanity of Tel Aviv. Frenkel, like other bohemians, would often sit in these cafes. He would sit in Cafe Sheleg HaLebanon, Cafe Kasit, and Cafe Ararat with renowned figures of Israel’s cultural scene: Leah Goldberg, Shlonsky, Castel, and others… Frenkel and other artists would frequent these cafes also due to their difficult economic situation. Lack of money and the deteriorated condition of their apartments made hosting difficult. Therefore, artists in Tel Aviv, just like other cities, would sit in the cafes…The 1930s would see a continuation of his artistic development.


During this period, he designed costumes and more for theatres, specifically for the HaBima and Ohel theatres [12].  In 1934, he designed the Adloyada, the Carnival of Tel Aviv [10]. In 1937, he roamed the land, painting Israel from north to south, his subjects including Tel Aviv, Jerusalem as well as Safed. 


Many of his relatives and friends perished during the Holocaust. This propelled him to create whole series of works on Jewish subjects to attempt, with his work, to help keep the world of Eastern European Jewry alive.


Frenkel's art began to become more recognized as he won the Dizengoff Prize in 1938, 1939, 1940, and 1948 [12].

In 1948, after a severe war, Israel was victoriously proclaimed as the independent state of the Jewish people. Frenkel was chosen by the Israeli leadership to paint the first meeting of the Israeli military’s chief committee [12]. Despite being given little time to record the historical event,  he captured the intensity of the moment starring most notably David Ben Gurion, the first Israeli prime minister.


He was also invited to paint the first Knesset (Israeli parliament), making portraits of its members individually, in order to then make one great painting of the Knesset’s 120 members[1][8][10][12]. However, following an argument, the project was dropped; some portraits survived but others were discarded. 


He also painted several prominent high-ranking military personas such as the IDF Chief of Staff Yaacov Dori, Yigal Yadin, and Yitzhak Sadeh.

Moreover, he would continue to design sets and costumes for Ha-Ohel and HaBima theatres [8][10]


He was one of the founding members of the Artists Colony of Safed (1949). However, Frenkel distanced himself from the community, leading to resentment toward him from many of the artists.


He and a few others were chosen to represent Israel at the Venice Biennale in 1948 and 1950 [11].


In 1954, after two decades in Israel, Frenkel returned to France. During that time he changed his name from Frenkel to Frenel. Baroness Alix de Rothschild commissioned vitrages for the chapel at Reux in Normandy (Northern France)[8]. News of this reached Israel, which inflamed rumors that Frenel had abandoned Judaism (entirely false rumors).

As one of the most influential artists of the École de Paris, he would exhibit worldwide. From Lima, Sao Paulo, and Caracas in South America to New York in the US, Capetown in South Africa, Amsterdam, Zurich, Munich, London, Paris, and more in Europe. In 1955, he presented his pieces at the Galerie Marcel Bernheim in Paris, and two years later, he exhibited at the O'Hara Gallery in London. In 1958, Frenel was honored with the Prize for Lithography at the International Lithography Exhibition of Brussels. In 1959, his works were featured at the Galerie Max Bollag in Zürich [8].

Indeed Frenel’s later life is characterized by a growing international career almost unparalleled by his contemporaries in Israel.


In 1960, Frenel returned to Israel. The rumours regarding Frenel’s religion led to the confiscation of his home in Safed. Frenel,  driven out of options, asked for help from the Israeli President and his wife (Yitzhak and Rachel Ben Zvi). Following this drama, his home was returned to him. 

His exhibitions worldwide continued,  in 1965 at the Continental Gallery and in 1970 at Vestart Gallery, both in New York [8] among others. He continued to garner recognition and accolades for his artwork, especially in France. In 1973, he was awarded the Grand Prix International de Peinture de la Côte d'Azur, as well as the Grand Prix de Deauville. His success extended beyond France, as he showcased his pieces at the Ibam Gallery in Rio de Janeiro in 1973, and later at the Israel Linke Gallery in Amsterdam in 1977[8].

Despite Frenkel Frenel’s great success abroad, he almost never exhibited in major Israeli museums. This was partly due to the antagonism the traditional Israeli art establishment felt towards him, his lack of interest in self-promotion or public relations, and the false rumours that spread about him during his time in France.

Therefore, Frenel would thereafter live in Paris through much of the year and use Safed as his summer home from that period forward.


In 1972, Ilana (his fourth wife) opened the Frenkel Frenel Museum in the artist’s former home in Safed. It houses a range of Frenel’s art, from the 1920s until his last weeks in life. 


In 1979 in honour of his 80th birthday, he had a one-man show in the Orangerie in Paris, inaugurated by the president of the French Senate (Alain Poher) [6][8].


In 1981 he died in Tel Aviv and was buried in Safed.


[1] Tidhar, D. (1950). Entsiklopedyah le-halutse ha-yishuv u-vonav (Vol. 4, p. 1883). Retrieved from:

[2] דבר⁩, 12 ספטמבר 1927⁩ — בתערוכה של הפטוריה לציור בתא מתפקידה _הראיון של; סטודיההציורים _השפעהו [⁨כתבה⁩]

[3] דבר⁩, 5 ספטמבר 1927⁩ — תל _8ביב [⁨כתבה⁩]

[4] דבר⁩, 6 אוגוסט 1928⁩ — לתערוכת הסטךדיה לציור שע'י _־ ועה'ת [⁨כתבה⁩]

[5] דבר⁩, 17 פברואר 1927⁩ — _תערוכת הסטודיה לציור [⁨כתבה⁩]

[6] “Alexandre Frenel.” Bureau d’art Ecole de Paris, 29 Mar. 2022,

[7] מנור, דליה. עם הפנים לתפוצות: השיח היהודי באמנות ארץ ישראל בשנות השלושים של המאה ה-20. 

(pages: 15, 19, 33, 42)

[8] Delhaise, Michel  G. “Yitzhak-Frenkel-Frenel-a-House-in-Safed.” Artnet Galleries: A House in Safed, 2013,

[9] Mr Expert, “Alexandre Frenel.” Estimation-Cote-Prix-Alexandre-Frenel,

[10] שץ, אורן. יצחק פרנקל-פרנל (1900 – 1981),

[11] The Israel Museum Jerusalem, יצחק פרנקל תערוכות,,%20%D7%99%D7%A6%D7%97%D7%A7&list=. (Exhibitions in/for Israel(

[12] the israel museum, jerusalem. יצחק פרנקל,,%20%D7%99%D7%A6%D7%97%D7%A7&list=%D7%A4.

[13]  בעקבות אסכולת פריז. מוזיאון מנה-כץ \ מוזיאון כט, 2013. (book pdf)  (pages: 8, 10, 11, 15, 34, 35, 36, 28*, 23*, 14*)

[14]  פרנקל, אליעזר. “אבא.” אליעזר פרנקל - אוטוביוגרפיה. (book pdf)

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