The Stillman-Lack Foundation. Dedicated to promoting the art of Ary Stillman
  AboutArtworkHistoryGalleries and MuseumsScholarshipsNewsSearchmenu tab end




Video Clips

American Art

The Artist's Wife

  History/Biography of Ary Stillman  

P U B L I C A T I O N S  >  R E M I N I S C E N C E S

bullet Preface
bullet Foreword
bullet Grandfather     Dictated by Ary
bullet The Village     Dictated by Ary
bullet Supplement to the Village
bullet Vilna     Dictated by Ary
bullet Supplemet to Vilna
bullet Coming to the United States     Dictated by Ary
bullet Back of the Store     Dictated by Ary
bullet Omaha     Dictated by Ary
bullet Ary in New York - 1919
bullet Ary in Paris
bullet Ary Comes Back to the United States
bullet Ary's Marriage
bullet Summer Cottage in Harmon
bullet The Studio on Fifty-Ninth Street
bullet We Return to Paris
bullet Cuernavaca-Houston
bullet Ary and Music
bullet Ary and the English Language
bullet Ary Stillman - Thoughts on Painting

Vilna (1905-6)
Dictated by Ary

Upon my graduation from the school in Slutzk, the Director told me to come to see him sometime in September, the early part of September, and he would have prepared for me all the necessary things for me to go to Vilna and enter the Imperial School of Art.

With the prospect of going to Vilna, a problem presented itself. The problem of lodgings and food had been solved during these years by staying with the Rabbiner. However there were other needs, books for school, clothes. The servant washed my few pieces of underwear and my couple of shirts, and the Rabbiner' s wife mended my one suit until it was a criss-cross of patches. Now with the prospect of going to Vilna there was the necessity of having a new suit made. Gradually I had been saving my kopeks for that — after school, when my work on the Rabbiner's books was over, I gave lessons to some of the less bright pupils at school, especially when examination time approached, to coach them for their examinations. Each coin so laboriously earned was put away in a safe place, and bit-by-bit the pile grew until it was big enough to make possible the new suit. What a major undertaking it was, to select material and bring it to the tailor. The father of a school-mate owned the largest store in town, and to this boy I confided my problem of buying material. The boy said he would be glad to bring me to his father, who would give me a special price. The store owner professed much interest in this school-mate of his son and assured me he would do as well by me as if I were his very own son. So finally, the precious material under my arm, I made my way to the tailor. The latter was bent over his work in his tiny little shop. He looked up at me and then at the material and shook his head, muttering something unintelligible. It was only later, in Vilna, that I understood, when after a few wearings and being exposed to the rain, holes began to appear in the seat of the trousers. I took them to a tailor, who said the material was worthless and would soon be in shreds. At first I solved the problem by wearing another, older pair of trousers under the ones that were tearing. Finally I had to give up and dip into the precious store of rubles, which I carried, tied around my neck, to buy material for another pair of pants.

I passed the summer months waiting impatiently, and the early part of September went to see the Director. He gave me some letters to his old friends in Vilna, and a little money, the amount I believe was about 70 rubles. He told me: "I have been in charge as Director of the school for quite a number of years. I had promising students and I tried to encourage them, whatever I was able to do, but they disappointed me. I do hope that you are not going to disappoint me like the previous ones. I have confidence that you will make good." And with some more remarks about the hardships a young man has to go through to accomplish things, he bade me goodbye and good luck.

That 70 rubles wasn't a great deal of money but to me it represented a fortune.

Shortly afterwards I was on my way to Vilna. I had to go for about 12 hours in a diligence before reaching the station at Rokwich where the main train would take me to Vilna. Early in the morning the Rabbiner and his wife took me to the station. There were tears in the eyes of the Rabbiner's wife and the Rabbiner also was much touched. He wished me courage and said they were sure that I would succeed in my ambition. I think I was embraced by both of them before taking my seat in the diligence, and slowly the horses began to pull out and I was on the way to the big city.

It took about 12 hours from Slutzk to Rokwich. Then we reached Rokwich it was night. The station was filled with people. There was a very poor light at the station. I had never seen a train before. I went out on the platform and in the dim light I saw the tracks. I put one leg down to feel if it was really what it seemed to be. Standing on the platform waiting for the train. Suddenly the bell rang and from far away you could hear the pouf, pouf, pouf and the train pulled in.

My ticket was for 4th Class and when I got in the compartment it was crowded, stuffy and very noisy. They were lying there on the wooden benches smoking and talking — a terrible noise. I was really scared. I managed to get a corner and sat there until the train pulled into Baronovitch (?), a big station where this train was to meet another one. There I saw a brightly illuminated station with big crowds, and more passengers crowded into our compartment. After half an hour or so the train pulled out and we were on our way. I couldn't sleep all night in the corner where I sat and I was disturbed. I was afraid. Then the daylight began to break and I could see how crowded the compartment was and the types who filled it up. I was really scared. The train was beginning to approach Vilna, there was a station stop and then it was the gates. Slowly, slowly, and then the train stopped and it was announced "Vilna." Everybody with their luggage (I had a small bag) came out from the compartment and started to walk in a certain direction. Somehow I was afraid to follow where the people went. I went in the opposite direction, kept walking back on the tracks, I was afraid to go where the station was. I realized I was going the wrong way, retrieved my way, and found the enormous station, crowded and noisy, a noise that was deafening.

I had two addresses; one was to a student who had graduated from school in Slutzk and like myself had been sent by the school to go and study at the Institute for Teachers in Vilna. The other was Mother's sister, a woman who was separated from her husband and who continued to live by herself. Between the two I thought it was better to go and see the student. I had heard that he too had received a small bourse to help him continue his studies. I don't remember how I succeeded to get to the place where the fellow lived. Undoubtedly I walked all the way carrying my little bag with me, and when I came to his place, which was in the heart of the ghetto, I had to wait quite a while before he came home. My first disappointment was when I met that fellow. He had been in Vilna over a year struggling to get into the Institute for Teachers, and he had failed and his disappointment was immediately made known to me in order to discourage me from even thinking of staying in Vilna. "Run as fast as you can and go home — any place but here." I told him that I had promised the Director that I would continue my studies. He shrugged his shoulders and asked me if I had any plans, if I have a place to stay, etc. When I told him I didn't, he told me that since he is leaving, probably I could take his place. This was easily arranged and I remained in that house. A few days later he left.

Now about the house. It was situated in the heart of the ghetto, near the synagogues; a dilapidated house which belonged to three or four owners, the first floor to one, the second floor to another, and I was on the third. With three families, the house was falling to pieces. My job was to help children with their lessons. When I met them I was scared. The boy was bigger than I and I was afraid he would beat me up. I was shy. But I was happy because I had a place to sleep. It wasn't exactly a room; it was just the back of something —I can't remember, but it was a place where I could sleep. And I had one meal a day – the evening meal. The house was very crowded and a constant warfare going on between the children of the man's first wife and those of his second wife. That warfare took on a menacing character from time to time, and then the best thing for me was to keep away from the house, just to come home and eat my meal and to sleep.

I went to look up my aunt. There the picture was different. My aunt lived in a house in the most modern section of Vilna. She was getting alimony from her ex-husband, evidently sufficient to live a fair kind of existence, and her life was devoted to saying her prayers. All day sessions of saying prayers. She had no children and was for a long time separated from everyone in the family. She didn't even know that I was supposed to come to Vilna and she was surprised that I had a place and a school. She vaguely knew the kind of school and was proud that her nephew would be studying there. I left my aunt with the promise that I would come every Saturday to visit her and to eat with her, so I had the assurance of the Saturday meal.

I had to wait some time yet before the school opened. Then I had to pass the examination by making a drawing from a cast, a Greek god. A week later I went to see posted on the bulletin board all the names of those who were accepted. My name was there. So now I was settled in Vilna, with a place to sleep, one meal a day, I was a student in the art school, and Saturday I would go to visit my aunt and after saying the prayer I would have my Saturday meal, and I began to feel happy in my environment. But there was trouble brewing. There was trouble among the students — that was in the year 1905 — and in the month of October I heard there were strikes. I heard students from other schools were demonstrating and one student in our school tried to pull me to some secret meetings.

Note: Ary didn't finish this, but I heard snatches of the story from him at various times, and in my own notes later I will fill in as much as possible.

Frances Stillman

Back to Top or Back to Publications

© 2008 The Stillman-Lack Foundation, All text and images on this site may not be published, broadcast, or distributed in any form without the prior written permission of The Stillman-Lack Foundation.