Ruth Light was born in Brooklyn in 1906. A bright and precocious young talent who from the outset decided upon a career in art, Light graduated from the Girls High School in Brooklyn with honors, earning the top prize for excellence in art. Encouraged by her art teacher, Light followed her high school education with formal studies at the Cooper Union Art College for Women in New York. There she studied drawing from the antique with Victor Perard, an internationally known illustrator and painter, and costume design with Ethel Traphagen, the famous fashion designer and founder of the Traphagen School of Design in New York. Light also supplemented her education with classes in figure drawing at the Art Students League.
After completing the curriculum at the Cooper Union, Light worked briefly as a freelance illustrator, producing illustrations for the New Yorker and numerous books. She soon sought additional studies with Winold Reiss (1886–1953), a German-born artist who had founded an art school in New York in 1916. By the time Light entered his school, Reiss was already famous for his Art Deco-inspired portrait studies of American ethnic “types,” especially of the Blackfeet Indians of Montana and the Negro community in Harlem. Reiss was among the first to represent America’s ethnic populations realistically, in a straightforward and dignified manner, without resorting to stereotypes. Because of his profound respect for his subjects, Reiss was warmly received within the respective ethnic communities that he endeavored to portray.
Under Reiss's tutelage, with whom she studied for about two years, Light’s portrait style flourished. She adopted all the major characteristics of her teacher’s work: the monolithic isolation of the subject, the Art Deco-inspired backgrounds, a preference for conté crayon, and the use of heavy illustration board as a substrate. Most significantly, Light was also inspired by Reiss’s project of recording American ethnic “types.” Having maintained since childhood a strong interest in, and identification with, Jewish culture and her own Jewish heritage, Light endeavored to make a record of contemporary Jewish life.
Light made numerous portraits of Jews in New York, as well as many genre sketches of Manhattan, particularly its Lower East Side, the neighborhood of New York which at that time had the largest concentration of recently arrived Jewish immigrants. Many of Light’s portraits of New York Jews contain themes that reveal a yearning for upward mobility and a participation in the American dream, often presented in vignettes in the backgrounds behind the sitters. Other works juxtapose elderly Jews, as symbols of the Jewish culture of the past, with imagery of the modern, industrialized world. Still others are portraits of famous Jews of the stage, including Molly Picon and Maurice Schwartz. Light’s urban sketches capture another aspect of the Jewish experience in New York. These anecdotal genre scenes, which depict street vendors, ladies’ department stores, subway stations, and tea rooms, capture the atmosphere of the working-class character of the streets in New York’s Jewish neighborhoods.
Around this time, Light and several of her friends joined Hadassah, the National Women’s Zionist Organization of America, a group that supported the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. In a time of rising Jewish awareness, it was not surprising that Light, a young, enthusiastic artist whose sole interest up to that point had revolved around documenting Jewish identity in the modern world, and who through her work demonstrated a strong sense of Jewish class consciousness, became interested in the cause of Jewish nationalism. And when she met a visitor from Palestine who invited her to stay at her home in Jerusalem, the opportunity proved to be too tempting for the ambitious young artist to resist.
Light spent the period from August 1931 to January 1933 in Palestine. She eagerly took advantage of her time there, as she set about recording the contemporary life of Jews in the Holy Land. Staying first in Jerusalem, Light also traveled to the holy city of Tiberias, which lies in the northeast on the Sea of Galilee, and to Rehovot (also known as Rehoboth), in what is now central Israel. She was warmly received by many of the Jewish immigrants from Western cultures, including some of the leading figures in the Zionist movement. Light was able to capture the likenesses of several Zionist luminaries, including Henrietta Szold, founder of Hadassah and Youth Aliyah, and Joseph Baratz, founder of the Degania Aleph Kibbutz, of one of the earliest and most influential communes in Palestine.
Beyond her ambition to record the major contributors toward a Jewish state in Palestine, Light also hoped to make a lasting visual record of the Palestinian immigrant culture. Light’s heroic portraits of Palestinian Jews follow essentially the same formula she established for her New York portraits, in that they often contain stylized landscapes and anecdotal genre details in the background. But in these works the theme of “aspiration” displayed in her New York works through the juxtaposition of “old world” and “new world” scenes, is mostly absent—these people’s aspirations, to form a Jewish state in Palestine, were being lived out every day. Like her New York sketches, Light’s genre scenes of Palestine record momentary glimpses of working class-life. Scenes of marketplaces, laundry rooms, city streets, and rooftops give an on-the-spot impression of daily life in Palestine.
Light was forced to return to the United States in 1933 after the death of her husband, whom she had married in Palestine. She then set aside her career as an artist, and took a job as an art teacher in the New York City public school system. She later married Erich Braun, and moved to Washington, D.C., where she and her husband established Braun’s Fine Caterers, the official caterers to the U.S. State Department. Ruth Light Braun resumed her art career after retiring to Miami Beach, Florida, in 1976, and she continued to produce art until her early nineties. It is her work from the 1920s and 1930s, however the drawings that record contemporary Jewish life in New York and Palestine, that comprise her most important and enduring contribution to art history, and to posterity.