Margaret Lefranc and Yasuo Kuniyoshi

Sophie Teplitz, Margaret’s mother, at age seven escaped with her parents from the repeated pogroms, attacks against the Jews, in the southern part of Russia. Margaret’s father, Abraham Frankel, left Moscow with his parents and other relatives to save him from serving in the military since the Russians put the Jews at the front of the line to be killed first. Sophie came from a wealthy family. Her father was a chemist or a brew master, and he traveled throughout Europe gathering formulae to make different types of beer. He died within a year of coming to America. Abraham’s family was a rare bred of Russian Jews, called “Landan” Jews, who were allowed to own land and to work a farm, so they bred horses. When they immigrated to America and settled in New Jersey, they rented a farm, bred horses and sold them in New York. However, Abraham Frankel’s first business venture was manufacturing shirts. At age twenty-one, he met Sophie when she came to work for him at age thirteen since her father had died. They married when she was sixteen.

Being very successful in the shirt business, he ventured into other businesses of real estate, built homes, theaters and eventually decided to go into the shipping business. Shortly before World War I, with more than twenty tankers transporting oil and other commodities, Dun & Bradstreet listed Abe’s worth at about fourteen million dollars, but Abe’s shipping business closed with the beginning of World War I when one of his tankers was torpedoed by the Germans. This was one of the acts which propelled the U.S. into the war. After the war, in 1919 and 1920, Abe worked for the U.S government to scrap the German fleet which necessitated the family’s move to Berlin. Once school was over, Margaret followed them on an East India freighter becoming sick from the sea and the food for most of the trip.

Margaret remembered the marvelous homes they occupied in Cypress Hills in the borough of Brooklyn and later the Pennsylvania Hotel penthouse on Seventh Avenue in New York where she had her own suite. She was chauffeured in her father’s Packard 21 to the Art Students League for which she had to have her parents’ permission to attend since she was only twelve. Abe brought over craftsmen from Europe to paint the ceilings in the Cypress Hills home. Each corner in the library had a relief medallion with a portrait of a famous person in literary, musical or intellectual history. On shelves were books and hand-painted plates, made in Bohema, and The Book of Knowledge, which Margaret devoured. The ceiling in the master bedroom was painted with clouds and cherubs. The house also had stained glass windows. Hanging on a wall was a copy of a painting called The Horse Fair by Rosa Bonheur, a famous painting of horses which intrigued Abe as his family had bred horses, and he, Sophie and Margaret rode them proficiently.

Life in Berlin and afterwards was not quite as opulent, but Abe was resilient during a short financial roller coaster ride and switched to becoming a distributor for Western movies produced in the United States. During her stay in Berlin, Margaret specialized in portraits in charcoal on paper, faces and figures of old and young men and women brought to her bedside when she was ailing from rheumatic fever, and later children she saw on the street, in class and in cafes sitting next to Picasso and others. As soon as Margaret recovered from her illness, her parents sent her one day a week to Kunstschule des Westens (School of the West).  When she was fourteen, she drew on paper her first still life, Berlin, of a pitcher, cup, and chipped mug sitting on a draped cloth with revealing folds. During the same year, she converted to oil and painted her First Still Life on Canvas (1921).

 Yasuo Kuniyoshi (1889–1953), born in Okayama, Japan, at sixteen he immigrated to the United States and became a painter, photographer, and print maker. His was a sophisticated vision of merging American, Japanese and European art. Eighteen years older than Margaret, he had a short stay in Paris in 1925 and returned to stay longer during 1928–29 achieving his goal of learning how to paint from life rather than from memory before returning to New York—three years before Margaret left Paris.  When Lefranc returned to New York, fourteen years elapsed until she funded and directed her Guild Art Gallery, where Kuniyoshi became an exhibitor. They also knew one another, along with Max Weber, from the American Artists’ Congress Exhibition, The All-American Graphic Art Show, consisting of 100 prints hosted in Lefranc’s Guild Art Gallery. Yasuo’s Still Life (1935), a print, is an original lithograph which he gave to Lefranc after the print exhibition of the American Artists Group, New York. Others have indicated it to be Two Pears and Strawberries—Still Life (1935), but that is not the name Kunioshi indicated on the reverse.  Though Kuniyoshi was a patriotic American, Margaret was saddened that he never gained citizenship because of the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese, so his life became somewhat restricted though he was not placed in an internment camp.