At the Jewish Museum, Only Pissarro Is Great

It has long been observed that the Jews, though an ancient and

intellectually gifted people, were late in coming to the art of painting. Both

their own religious doctrines-especially the Second Commandment prohibiting the

making of graven images-and the strict segregation traditionally enforced upon

Jews in Christian societies effectively precluded their participation in the

visual arts until quite recent times. It was largely as a consequence of the

Enlightenment in 18th-century Europe and the political upheavals that followed

upon the French Revolution of 1789 that Jews began to be admitted to

professions and vocations theretofore closed to them. One of these was the

vocation of art itself.

It is to the early artistic consequences of this turning point in

modern history that the current exhibition at the Jewish Museum is devoted.

Organized by Susan Tumarkin Goodman, The

Emergence of Jewish Artists in 19th-Century Europe brings together the work

of some 21 painters from England, France, Italy, Germany, Holland, Poland and

Austria-Hungary. Only a few of these artists are likely to be familiar to

American museum goers. Undoubtedly the greatest and best-known is the French

Impressionist master Camille Pissarro (1830-1903), who is here represented by

two superlative landscape paintings and a late Self Portrait (1903).

Aficionados of modern German painting are sure to be acquainted

with the work of Max Liebermann (1847-1935), who is represented by four

paintings, one of them a self-portrait dating from 1911. The Dutch painter

Jacob Meyer de Haan (1852-1895) may also be familiar because of his association

with Paul Gaugin in the latter’s period of residence at Le Pouldu in Brittany,

though Gaugin’s powerful Portrait of

Meyer de Hanna by Lamplight (1889) tends to overshadow the paintings de

Haan created under Gaugin’s influence.

Connoisseurs of the English school of Pre-Raphaelite paintings

have long been familiar with the talents of Simeon Solomon (1840-1905), though

it may come as news to them (as it did to me) that he belonged to a family of

painters that included his brother, Abraham Solomon (1824-62), and his sister,

Rebecca Solomon (1832-86). There is also, unrelated to them, Solomon J. Solomon

(1860-1927), who, in addition to his success as a painter of London high

society, won some renown for what the catalog of the exhibition describes as

“his role in implementing the use of strategic camouflage during World War I.”

All of the Solomons are represented in the current exhibition,

but Simeon was clearly the most audacious member of this gifted family, both in

his art and in his life. He painted both Jewish and Christian subjects, and his

paintings of young men, whether Christian or Jewish, have an unmistakable

suggestion of homoerotic interest. The pious young Jew in Carrying the Scrolls of the Law (1867) embraces the Torah like a

lover, but the painter’s own passion was clearly directed at the young man

himself. He was nothing if not open in his homosexuality, and in 1873 was

arrested and convicted for indecency. He died a destitute alcoholic in a London

workhouse, but not before producing a terrifying self-portrait called Head (Saint Peter of “Help Lord or I

Perish”) (1892), a painting not easily forgotten.

For the most part, however, The

Emergence of Jewish Artists in 19th-Century Europe is devoid of both

scandal and audacity. Dominated by portraits of Jewish worthies and genre

scenes of religious observance and Jewish family life, the paintings tend to be

conservative, even academic, in their range of pictorial conventions. As there

were few aesthetic precedents for the depiction of Jewish subjects, it was

inevitable for these painters to adopt the acceptable styles of their day,

which tended, of course, not to be the subtlest or most advanced. One or

another variety of a middling realism was the preferred course, ranging from

the flattering elegance of Moritz Daniel Oppenheim (1800-82) in his wedding

portraits like Charlotte von Rothschild

as Bride and Lionel Nathan de

Rothschild as Bridegroom (both 1836), to the very different Rembrandtesque A Jewish Wedding (1903) by the Dutch

painted Jozef Isrëals (1824-1911), to grimmer scenes of sorrow and loss by the

Polish painters Samuel Hirszenberg (1865-1908) in The Jewish Cemetery (1892) and Maurycy Minkowski (1881-1930) in After the Pogrom (1905). There are

Biblical subjects and scenes of synagogue worship, but also pictures of boys

frolicking in the sea and even some female nudes in the later paintings.

Talent

abounds in this exhibition, but genius is rare-and only to be found, in

my judgment, in the wonderful Pissarros. For the dramatic story which unfolds

in this exhibition has less to do with artistic inspiration and invention than

with historical documentation of the saga of Jewish life on its hard-won

journey to emancipation and modernity. For anyone with a keen interest in that

subject, The Emergence of Jewish Artists

in 19th-Century Europe offers much that has never before been seen in this

country. The exhibition remains on view at the Jewish Museum, Fifth Avenue at

92nd Street, through March 17, and will

then travel to the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire du Judaisme in Paris from

April 17 to Aug. 26. It’s accompanied by an excellent catalog that is likely to

remain a standard work of reference ($50, hardcover; $29.95, paperback).