Isaac Michael Cohen

Isaac Cohen was born in Ballarat, Victoria in 1884. He entered the National Gallery of Victoria art school in 1900 at 16 years of age, at a time when Lindsay Bernard Hall was the head of the School and Fred McCubbin was the drawing master.

Isaac Michael Cohen - The Reconciliation
Isaac Michael Cohen – The Reconciliation

A prodigious talent, Cohen was awarded the much desired National Gallery Travelling Scholarship in 1905. The scholarship was worth £150 per annum over three years and provided the recipient with the means to study in Europe. The winner had to provide evidence of their development by providing to the National Gallery of Victoria one nude study, one original composition and one copy of an old master.

Cohen never returned to Australia from that scholarship win. He never exhibited again in this country and lived and worked in London painting portraits for the aristocracy and wealthy middle class.

He was elected to the memberships of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters; the Royal Institute of Oil Painters; the Pastel Society and the Society of Graphic Artists. He also won gold and silver medals at the Paris Salon. Streeton and Philips Fox were the only other Australian artists to have achieved a similar honour.

The Reconciliation was painted in 1904 and is the only work by Cohen to have come into the market in Australia. When it was originally exhibited, The Reconciliation was purchased by a diplomat from Norway and taken to his posting in New Zealand. It was to remain in that family’s collection until being discovered by a visiting Australian gallery owner in 1996.

Through Cohen’s relative obscurity in Australia brought about by his early departure for Europe, this work was thought to be an early piece by Hans Heysen. The attribution was fuelled by the vague memories of the descendants of the original owners and opinions given by some members of the Heysen family and those associated with the Heysen Trust.

Regrettably it was an incorrect attribution as Heysen’s brush work, sense of design and colour at the time was not to the standard of this piece. Heysen’s works were also beginning to evolve into the classic pastoral scenes and landscapes that have become synonymous with the artist over the years.

The Heysen attribution lasted a number of years, until formal identification of the artist was made when an illustrated article, showing this work, was discovered in a 1905 edition of The Argus.

This work was exhibited at the National Gallery of Victoria Travelling Scholarship Exhibition 1905 and was awarded the scholarship.