Jacob Kainen Biography

Jacob Kainen




Jacob Kainen, painter, printmaker, journalist, scholar, collector, and curator, was born to Russian immigrants in Waterbury, Connecticut on December 7, 1909. His parents encouraged his artistic interests and his mother fostered a passion for music and literature. In 1918, the Kainen family moved to the Bronx and Jacob attended DeWitt Clinton High School where he graduated in 1926.

Too young to attend Pratt Institute, Kainen enrolled in night classes with Kimon Nicolaides at the Art Students League. In his teaching, Kainen found the structure as well as the freedom to grow as a draughtsman. His family instilled the importance of industry, and during this time he made his first drypoints, worked in Bretano’s bookstore taking full advantage of the art books on the shelves, and became a skilled amateur prizefighter.

In 1927, Kainen entered Pratt as a painting student but he was so rebellious and impatient that his various antics gave cause for the administration to expel him three weeks before graduation in 1930. Kainen joined the John Reed Club and at the club’s meetings he met Diego Rivera, Henry Glintenkamp, George Ault, Hilaire Hiler, and Stuart Davis. In 1934, he had his first chance to exhibit at the American Artists School. When the government sponsored Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project was inaugurated in 1935, Kainen registered for the graphics project. That same year he became a contributor to Art Front, the journal of the Artist’s Union and later served on its board. He also had his submissions accepted by The Daily Worker and The New Masses. In 1940, Kainen had his first solo exhibition mounted at the A.C.A. gallery

In 1942, Kainen was hired as an aide in the Division of Graphic Arts at the U.S. National Museum (now the National Museum of American History) in Washington, D.C. and, in 1944, his job became permanent. Two years later he was appointed curator of the Division of Graphic Arts. The collection was in dire need of direction, growth, and conservation and Kainen flourished as its curator mounting monthly print exhibitions and acquiring works. Kainen also worked as curator of prints and drawings for six years at the National Collection of Fine Arts (now the Smithsonian American Art Museum) and he retired from the Smithsonian in 1970.

In his private time, Kainen continued painting and printmaking but he did not promote his work while holding professional curatorial positions. After his retirement, the first exhibition of his paintings was mounted at the Ester Stuttman Gallery in the fall of 1970 and the show garnered great reviews. In 1976, Jacob Kainen: Prints, A Retrospective was mounted at the National Collection of Fine Arts and the catalog includes 147 original prints.

Collections holding his work include the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the National Gallery, the Phillips Collection, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Yale University Art Gallery, the Bezalel National Museum in Jerusalem, and the British Museum in London.

Jacob and Ruth Kainen collected paintings, drawings, and prints from the 15th century to the 20th century and they slowly made gifts of their collection to the National Gallery.  In September 1985, the National Gallery mounted the exhibition German Expressionist Prints from the Collection of Ruth and Jacob Kainen.

Jacob Kainen died while preparing to go to his studio in Chevy Chase, Maryland on March 19, 2001.