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Harold Rotenberg, 105; artist traveled the world for inspiration

American impressionist Harold Rotenberg spent many summers in Rockport. American impressionist Harold Rotenberg spent many summers in Rockport.
By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / April 12, 2011

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With a hand he believed was guided by God, Harold Rotenberg painted canvases that gave new life to the spectrum of colors he admired in landscapes around the world.

From the rocky coast of Quebec to a hillside village in Israel to a cove in Rockport, where he spent many summers, Mr. Rotenberg painted scenes that formed a visual diary of international journeys that continued even after he turned 100. The subtlety of light, and its absence, spoke to him.

“Shadows,’’ he told the Globe in 1998, “are as important as the bass tones on a piano.’’

Mr. Rotenberg, an American impressionist whose work is part of the collections at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Israeli Parliament building, died in his sleep April 2 in his Winter Park, Fla., home. He was 105, and until recently his health was so good that his physician cleared him to travel once more to Israel.

“His art was really about a very particular brush stroke that is identifiable throughout his career,’’ said his granddaughter Abigail Ross Goodman of Cambridge. “He was tremendously interested in light and landscape and how you could capture the essence of a moment through its light and the play of that light on the landscape.’’

Generous with the paint he applied, Mr. Rotenberg created canvases that provided an aesthetic experience as tactile as it was visual.

“The texture,’’ he mused as he ran his fingertips over a painting in a video, recorded just before he turned 104, that is posted on www.growingbolder.com. “I’m interested in what it feels like.’’

Never one to linger in his studio, Mr. Rotenberg traveled the world looking for subjects. He considered his paintings adventures and thought that standing in front of a scene as he committed it to canvas was an integral part of creativity.

“For me, each painting has to be a new experience,’’ he told American Artist magazine. “I can’t cook up things in a studio. I work on the spot and like to feel the challenge of the subject. I need to be fired up and inspired.’’

He also needed to feel the presence of the divine.

“The most amazing thing about my father was that he had such great faith in God,’’ said his son, Jon of Brookline.

In the 1998 interview with the Globe, Mr. Rotenberg said simply: “God is so good. I thank him every day, every minute. He pours in atmosphere.’’

Born in Attleboro, Mr. Rotenberg was the youngest of eight children. His father was a tailor, an artist with cloth, Mr. Rotenberg told interviewers.

Mr. Rotenberg tried his hand at painting after seeing an older brother create sculptures from female figure models, an appealing art subject for an adolescent boy. At 19, not long after graduating from high school in Attleboro, he traveled to the Middle East and Europe for months with his parents and studied art in Jerusalem.

Over the next dozen years, he also trained in Boston, Paris, and Austria, and in the decades that followed he returned often to Paris and spent months at a time in Israel. He studied at the Museum School in Boston, at the Académie Julian and the Académie de la Grand Chaumière in Paris, and the Kunst academy in Austria.

He also taught in Boston at the Museum School and the School of Practical Arts, and in settlement houses that helped immigrants adjust to life in this country, such as Hecht House in Dorchester.

As much as possible, though, he supported his family by painting and indulging his wanderlust, traveling to Mexico and Morocco, Japan and Europe.

“He had this hunger to discover things different from him,’’ his granddaughter said. “He wanted to know different people, experience different cultures. He had an appetite to know the world, and I think that curiosity and that passion gave him the lease on life he had for so long.’’

Everywhere he went, Mr. Rotenberg sought creative sustenance outside in the elements, sunshine or storm.

“I went to nature because I was looking for the accidental, the unusual,’’ he told the Boston Herald in 1995. “I never sat in a studio. I went outdoors where there was rain or heat or sunlight pouring down on you.’’

The experience, he said, was always spiritual.

“I am working with God when I paint,’’ he told the Herald. “I talk to God with my paintbrush.’’

Mr. Rotenberg’s first marriage, to Fay Amgott, ended in divorce.

In 1969, he married Charlotte Ettinger, and in the growingbolder.com video he said of an early portrait he painted of her, “She looks like Elizabeth Taylor.’’

She became his companion on his travels, too, and got to see up close the joy he felt, brush in hand.

“When he paints, he smiles,’’ she said in the video.

“Relationships were so important to him,’’ his granddaughter said. “He cared so much about the people he came in contact with, and he maintained an aura of peacefulness that was very comforting.’’

His daughter Judi Rotenberg Ross Zuker of Newton, who used to sell her father’s paintings at a Newbury Street gallery she formerly owned, said his enthusiasm for a life that had stretched for so many years seemed to almost overshadow his artistic accomplishments at times.

“People are always so fascinated by his life and his personality and the presence of him,’’ she said. “Sometimes his great art took second place to his great personage. With a lesser man, they would have focused more on his fabulous artwork.’’

In addition to his wife, son, daughter, and granddaughter, Mr. Rotenberg leaves another daughter, Jane R. Moss of Boston; two stepdaughters, Audrey Lentz of Winter Park, Fla., and Janis Bear of New York City; four other grandchildren; four stepgrandchildren; three great-grandchildren; and three step-great-grandchildren.

A service has been held for Mr. Rotenberg, who was buried in Agudas Achim Cemetery in Attleboro.

“He never thought like an old man, he thought like a young person,’’ his son said. “Nine days before he died, I had dinner and a beer with him.’’

Mr. Rotenberg never took for granted the blessing of longevity.

“When I’m gone, I will miss all of this,’’ he said in the 1998 Globe interview with a sweep of his hand, as if to include everything he had ever encountered. The desire to keep creating was such that “sometimes I wake up at night and just paint pictures.’’

Asked in the growingbolder.com video what he wanted for his upcoming birthday, Mr. Rotenberg named only one gift: “Another day.’’

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bmarquard@globe.com.