Jewish Painters

With the Enlightenment, Jewish painters experienced unprecedented opportunity.

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Anti-Semitism a Potent Force

As anti-Semitism in Europe became a more potent force in the early 20th century, many of Europe's greatest Jewish painters fled to America or the nascent state of Israel. Max Weber (1881-1961), for example, was born in Russia and became a well-known Expressionist painter in the United States. He was later greatly influenced by the work of Pablo Picasso and incorporated Cubism into his unique painting style. Weber drew inspiration from his new, urban American setting. Titles of his best-known paintings include "Vaudeville" and "Chinese Restaurant."

While most Jewish 19th and 20th century painters who succeeded Oppenheim did not paint specifically Jewish-themed work, one exception stands out: Marc Chagall.

The son of poor Hassidic family, Chagall left his native Russia to study in Paris. Chagall's work incorporates imagery from his youth: both folk images of life in the village and also allusions to the Hebrew Bible. Using oils, watercolors and gouches, Chagall creates a modern Jewish aesthetic--incorporating the styles and techniques of the Parisian art scene, while expressing and identifying his Jewish background and frame of reference. Chagall created great works in both America and Israel--most notably, the stained glass windows in Jerusalem's Hadassah hospital representing the 12 tribes of Israel.

While Chagall was the only major artist in the Paris school whose paintings included Jewish content, there were many other Jewish painters of note living and working in Paris at that time, among them Chaim Soutine, Jules Pascin, and Amedeo Modigliani. Modigliani's paintings do make occasional Jewish references, and at times incorporate Hebrew letters and symbols into his designs.

Meanwhile, in pre-state Israel, Jewish painters established an important cultural institution in their homeland. In the 1920s, the artist Boris Schatz established the Bezalel School, an institute to train painters and sculptors in fine art techniques. Early Israeli painters like Nahum Gutman (1898-1980) created a unique "Hebrew" style of art--capturing the excitement of establishing a Jewish state--while maintaining his influences from Modern European art. Gutman's pastoral scenes and many portraits of the waters that surround Israel reflect a love for the Land of Israel and nature.

Israeli painters faced the challenge of dedicating themselves to their homeland while maintaining connections to the larger art world. Some great Israeli artists like Reuven Rubin left Israel for periods of their life. Rubin's held his first major exhibit in the United States, thanks to friend Alfred Stieglitz, in order to receive the recognition that he desired. Some Israeli painters--like the well-known Ya'akov Agam--do not paint specifically Jewish or Israeli themes. Agam has been acclaimed world-wide, for example, for his unique style of optical art.

Through a Feminist Lens

The second-half of the 20th century has brought with it increased diversity of Jewish painters. With the birth of the feminist movement in the United States came artists approaching their work with a specifically feminist lens. Judy Chicago (1939- ), one of the best-known feminist artists, brings her unique perspective on women's history to her art.  Chicago is a painter but also works in a variety of other media as well, including sketching and bronze casting. As a professor of Feminist Art--the first ever--at California State University in Fresno during the 1970s, Chicago created a piece called "The Dinner Party," which addresses issues of women's subjugation throughout history.

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Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer

Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer is a freelance writer and educator based in Philadelphia. She is the author of two books of plays for children: The Magic Tanach and Other Short Plays and Extraordinary Jews: Staging Their Lives as well as The Creative Jewish Wedding Book.