Jules Kirschenbaum was born in New York in 1930, raised in a family who instilled in him a passion for fine arts, literature, philosophy, and art history. His father was a dealer of books, manuscripts, and prints, regularly taking his son to museums in New York from an early age. In 1944, Kirschenbaum enrolled in the High School of Music and Art (now Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts) and later attended the Brooklyn Museum Art School in 1948.
In 1951, Kirschenbaum traveled throughout Europe with Charles Tauss (1927-2000), an artist whom he befriended at the Brooklyn Museum Art School. They explored Italy, Spain, France, Belgium, Austria, and Switzerland to study the work of the Old Masters. Passionate and highly influenced by fifteenth-century Italian and Netherlandish artists, Kirschenbaum often executed representational and figurative paintings, employing Old Master techniques and idioms in his work.
Achieving success early in his artistic career, Kirschenbaum had his first one-man exhibition at the Salpeter Gallery in New York City in 1955 and won the Hallgarten Prize at The National Academy of Design that same year. Following his success, he met artist Cornelis Ruhtenberg (1923-2008) and they soon married in 1956. Awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to study in Italy that same year, Kirschenbaum left New York with Cornelis to study at the Florence Institute of Fine Arts, where they remained for the next two years. When they returned to the United States in 1959, the Salpeter Gallery held another exhibition of his work, which was very well-received and celebrated. His artistic career continued to advance after this exhibition, leading up to the National Academy of Design honoring Kirschenbaum with its highest award, the Benjamin Altman First Prize for Figure Painting. He was elected Associate of the Academy the following year.
Kirschenbaum moved to Des Moines with his family in 1963 to assume the position of artist-in-residence at the Des Moines Art Center. During this time, he abandoned his usual figurative, Renaissance-inspired style and began experimenting with abstraction. In 1967, he was offered a position as principal painting instructor at Drake University in Des Moines. He became a full professor in 1970 and continued to teach at Drake University until the end of his life. His curriculum instilled a love for The Arts in his students, much like the education he received from his own father and academic studies. A professor much loved and appreciated by his students, Kirschenbaum received a Levitt distinguished professorship from Drake University in 1984 and the President’s Award for outstanding Undergraduate Teaching in 1989.
Alongside his teaching endeavors, Kirschenbaum continued to pursue his painting career and gradually returned to Realism. He exhibited in many group and solo exhibitions throughout the country and in Japan and Italy. In 1972, Forum Gallery presented their first Kirschenbaum exhibition at their upper east side location on Madison Avenue.
Important museum exhibitions for the artist include two at the Des Moines Art Center: Jules Kirschenbaum: Painting Survey, 1950–1983 (1984) and Jules Kirschenbaum: The Last Paintings, 1992–1999 (2001). Six years after his death, the University of Iowa Museum presented the retrospective, Jules Kirschenbaum: The Need to Dream of Some Transcendent Meaning (2006).
In addition to receiving numerous awards for his work during his lifetime, Kirschenbaum is now represented in many important public collections, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; the Des Moines Art Center in Iowa; the Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C.; the National Academy of Design in New York; the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery in Lincoln, Nebraska; and The Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, Ohio.