Rubin Zelicovici (later Reuven Rubin) was born in Galati to a poor Romanian Jewish Hasidic family. He was the eighth of 13 children. In 1912, he left for Ottoman-ruled Palestine to study art at Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem. Finding himself at odds with the artistic views of the Academy’s teachers, he left for Paris, France, in 1913 to pursue his studies at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts. At the outbreak of World War I, he was returned to Romania, where he spent the war years.
Although born in Romania and trained in art in Paris and Romania, Reuven Rubin in many ways is a distinctly and distinctively Israeli artist. He studied briefly at the Bezalel School of Art in Jerusalem, and he exhibited in the first art exhibitions in Jerusalem in 1922. His exhibit of 1924 was the first one-man show in the Jerusalem exhibits, and his one-man show in 1932 launched the Tel Aviv Art Museum. He designed scenery for Habimah, Israel’s National Theater, and Rubin was one of the first Israeli artists to achieve international recognition.
Most important, though, was Rubin’s attempt to create an indigenous style of art. Influenced heavily by the work of Henri Rousseau, he sought to fuse this style with Eastern nuances. Hence his custom of signing his first name in Hebrew and his surname in Roman letters. Among Rubin’s most memorable works are his paintings of the Yishuv, particularly his landscapes and his paintings of the Israeli worker. Biblical themes also occur frequently in his work. His work was extremely popular both at home and abroad, and if his later work was less complex and profound than his earlier productions, it did not lessen his popularity.
Rubin served as Israel’s first ambassador to Rumania, from 1948-1950. His autobiography, My Life–My Art, was published in 1969, and he received the Israel Prize in 1973 for his artistic achievement.
Reuven Rubin was one of the most important young artists in Palestine of the 1920s who reacted against the classic Western orientation of Jerusalem’s Bezalel Academy. Rejecting the use of Oriental motifs and local landscape to depict biblical subjects, these artists drew instead drew everyday visions of the Near East in a modernistic artistic style.
In his joyous portrayal of the land of Israel in “Goldfish Vendor,” Rubin focuses on a current theme in Israeli art of that decade – the portrayal of the Arab. Rubin’s colleague, Nahum Gutman, wrote that the Arab with his ties to the land represented the antithesis of the Diaspora Jew; in this painting the Arab clearly represents the physical vitality of the people, his sense of belonging to and identification with the land and its landscape.
In 1924, he was the first artist to hold a solo exhibition at the Tower of David, in Jerusalem (later exhibited in Tel Aviv at Gymnasia Herzliya). That year he was elected chairman of the Association of Painters and Sculptors of Palestine. From the 1930s onwards, Rubin designed backdrops for Habima Theater, the Ohel Theater and other theaters.