Henry Cooper, 96, cantor at Har Sinai, noted portrait painter

February 18, 2002|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

Henry Cooper, a former cantor and painter whose portraits hang in Baltimore, New York and the Middle East, died of heart failure Saturday at Sinai Hospital. The Pikesville resident was 96.

"He was a hardworking and ambitious artist who wanted very much to make a contribution to the world of art, and he managed to make a living doing it," said Rabbi Mark G. Loeb of Beth El Congregation, where Mr. Cooper attended services.

Born Gregor Kipermann in Ukraine, Mr. Cooper arrived in Philadelphia in 1912 with his parents, five brothers and a sister. He was raised in Philadelphia, where he graduated from Central High School.

After graduating with a degree in Hebrew studies from Gratz College near Philadelphia in the 1920s, Mr. Cooper pursued careers in music and painting. He studied at Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

He was awarded fellowships from the Pennsylvania Academy in 1927 and 1928 to study in Paris with Andre Lhote, an influential teacher of cubism who also taught Picasso.

Gifted with a rich, baritone voice, Mr. Cooper began singing as a youth with various boys choirs that accompanied cantors in Philadelphia. He said in an interview in The Sun in 1964 that while studying art in Paris he "discovered" what he called synagogue music.

When he returned to Philadelphia in the 1920s, Mr. Cooper joined a synagogue choir and later became cantor, working at a Jewish center there.

In 1942, he was appointed cantor at Har Sinai Congregation in Baltimore, the oldest continuously Reform synagogue in the United States. He commuted from Philadelphia until moving to the Baltimore area in 1949, and retired from Har Sinai in 1976.

Over the years, he sang with several celebrities, and was a part of chorale groups that performed with Kate Smith and accompanied Martha Graham's dance concerts.

Mr. Cooper painted more than 1,200 portraits that hang in hospitals, synagogues and other institutions throughout the world. Those displayed locally include a portrait of Supreme Court Justice John Marshall at the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse in Baltimore and a painting of Joseph Meyerhoff at the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. Twenty-eight of his portraits are displayed in the National Jockeys Hall of Fame at Pimlico Race Course.

Over the years, he painted numerous portraits of federal and state judges, and several faculty members and administrators from the Johns Hopkins University and medical institutions.

His portrait of opera star Roberta Peters hangs in the Metropolitan Opera House in Lincoln Center in New York, and his painting of Golda Meir is in Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem. His paintings also are on display at Baltimore Hebrew University and at several area synagogues, including Har Sinai, Beth Tifiloh, Beth El and the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation.

He was a member of the National Artists Equity Association, a nonprofit group, the National Cantors Association and the Cantors Assembly of Maryland. He also was a chaplain for B'nai B'rith.

A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. today at Har Sinai, 6300 Park Heights Ave.

Mr. Cooper's first wife, the former Betty Niethammer, died in 1978.

He is survived by his wife of 22 years, the former Ruth Wilen; two daughters, Gail Cooper-Hecht Saplin of New York and Deborah Sidlin of Portland, Ore.; three stepchildren, Elissa Hellman of Pikesville and Jack Wilen and Jamie Wilen, both of Owings Mills; two grandchildren; and six stepgrandchildren.

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