The Jewish Museum

New York, New York

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Facing the New World: Jewish Portraits in Colonial and Federal America


September 21 - January 11, 1998



In Facing the New World: Jewish Portraits in Colonial and Federal America, on view from September 21, 1997 through January 11, 1998, The Jewish Museum will present the first major, comprehensive exhibition of rare early American Jewish portraits, from 1700 through the 1830s. Comprised of full-size portraits as well as intimate miniatures, the exhibition features 87 important paintings by such distinguished American artists as Gilbert Stuart, Thomas Sully, John Wesley Jarvis, Charles Willson Peale, Rembrandt Peale and Ralph Earl as well as early American decorative arts, drawings, silhouettes and Jewish ritual objects.

The portraits provide a fresh look at early American Jewish life and introduce the names and faces of notable Jews who contributed significantly to the building of the United States. They also remind the viewer that Jews arriving in the New World had already begun a process that would in many ways define the social and religious history of American Jewry: the ongoing experiment of reconciling Jewish tradition and new American realities.

Following its New York showing, the exhibition will be on view at The Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore, Maryland from February 19 through May 24, 1998. Offering new insights into this little-known but fascinating chapter of American Jewish life, Facing the New World integrates art and Jewish history, interpreting the portraits within a larger cultural and aesthetic framework. The exhibition explores social and cultural roles, patronage, family and regional groups, Jewish identity, assimilation and intermarriage.

For early American Jews, portraiture was a means of visually identifying themselves as established members of the new, pluralistic American society. Jews consciously chose to have themselves represented looking like everyone else. They commissioned artists best known for their portraits of the leading figures of colonial and Federal society and adopted the same pictorial conventions as non-Jewish patrons.

Many colonial portraits were based on English prototypes, with artists relying on formulae which implicitly conveyed information about class, status, and wealth. These modes of representation were already familiar to their audience, and very much in demand. Following the Revolution, America had its own history and its own heroes to commemorate. The portraits made during the Federal period (from 1780 to 1815) began to look more like the individuals they represented rather than the generic types of colonial times.

The sitters represented in Facing the New World were prominent members of early American society, and include, among others, the Hays and Touro families of Boston and Newport; the Levy-Franks, Hendricks, and Seixas families of New York; the Gratz family of Philadelphia; the Etting and Cohen families of Baltimore; and the Myers family of Norfolk.

The stories behind these portraits are intriguing. Although a few of the sitters were loyalists who fled to England during and after the Revolutionary War, many were Revolutionary patriots, and some, such as Colonel Isaac Franks and Abraham Alexander, were Revolutionary War heroes. Other acclaimed military and civic leaders are pictured in the exhibition, including Uriah P. Levy, who became a commodore in the United States Navy and later purchased and restored Thomas Jefferson's estate at Monticello .

Among the many women depicted in the exhibition is Rebecca Gratz, the Philadelphia society "beauty," educator and philanthropist who founded the first Hebrew Sunday School and orphan home, and is said to be the model for the Jewish heroine Rebecca in Sir Waiter Scott's Ivanhoe. Thomas Sully painted her three times (two of these portraits are in the exhibition). Bilhah "Abigail" Levy Franks' vivid correspondence provides a rare picture of colonial life in early 18th century New York from the perspective of a woman. One of her letters to her son in England is included in the exhibition.

Other exhibition highlights include fine examples of silver and needlework including five silver spoons by the leading Boston silversmith, the patriot Paul Revere, from a large group of tableware commissioned by the wealthy Jewish merchant Moses Michael Hays; a pair of silver sauce boats made for New York merchant Abraham Brinckerhoff by Myer Meyers, a Jewish silversmith from New York City working in the English Rococo style during the 18th century; and a rare surviving 19th century sampler by Rachel Seixas demonstrating that its young maker was not only accomplished with a needle and thread, but also a "proper lady of a good family."

The 1794 portrait of Benjamin S. Judah by Ralph Earl features the international trader in extravagantly rich costume, his right hand resting on a bill of exchange, with a landscape visible through an open window. An 1802 painting by Gilbert Stuart portrays Colonel Isaac Franks, who fought in the Battle of Long Island under the command of George Washington and gave his home in Germantown, Pennsylvania for General Washington's use. A late 18th century miniature depicts Gershon Mendes Seixas, the hazzan or leader of worship at Congregation Shearith Israel, a Revolutionary patriot, and one of thirteen clergymen who participated in the inauguration of George Washington as President.

In the silhouette of Grace Mendes Seixas Nathan (Mrs. Simon Nathan) and her son, ca. 1824, the artist Master Hubard depicts the seated matron, poet and Revolutionary patriot, with her only son standing respectfully before her. Among their descendants are Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo and Emma Lazarus, whose poem "The New Colossus" is inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty. In the 1828 portrait of Adolphus Simeon Solomons and Mary Jane Solomons, both children are informally posed and energetic little Adolphus looks as if he were ready to jump out of the picture.

Two early 19th century paintings of Mr. and Mrs. Moses Myers by Gilbert Stuart and a portrait of their son, John Myers, by Thomas Sully, will be hung in a setting evoking the parlor of the family's home in Norfolk, Virginia with two Federal period mahogany side chairs and a mahogany card table. Also in the exhibition are portraits by unknown folk artists and some comparative paintings of non-Jewish subjects, including a work by Joshua Johnson, an accomplished African-American painter active in the Baltimore area.

Portraiture was the most popular form of painting in colonial and Federal America. Despite the small size of the Jewish population, many significant portraits of Jews survive, often painted by the leading artists of the day. Commissioned portraits were expensive and considered a luxury. For early Americans who could afford it, portraits of themselves and their families were an affirmation of their status and place in society. The portraits were most frequently displayed in rooms in the home - such as the parlor - where the family would receive guests. Before the invention of photography, the portrait was also a way of commemorating and remembering relatives and loved ones who were far away.

The first Jews arrived in North America in 1654, when twenty-three Jewish refugees from Brazil sailed into the harbor of New Amsterdam. They were soon joined by more immigrants, many of them descendants of Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal, and others with origins in Western and Central Europe. By the 18th century, a small community of Jews - still numbering fewer than 500 households - had made the New World their home.

These early settlers established themselves as merchants, traders, and property owners, and many rose to positions of prominence in colonial and Federal America. Although there were incidents of anti-Semitism and, in the beginning, even the denial of their full civil rights, Jews were able to participate in most aspects of public life while retaining their private right to live and worship as Jews. By 1830, there were as many as 4,000 Jews living in the New Republic; and the Sephardic communities who had been the first to arrive in the colonies were increasingly outnumbered by Ashkenazic immigrants from Central Europe and the German lands.

Dr. Richard Brilliant, Anna S. Garbedian Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University and an authority on portraiture, is the exhibition's guest curator. Ellen Smith, Curator at the American Jewish Historical Society, served as historical consultant to the exhibition. Kathryn Potts, Assistant Curator for Traveling Exhibitions, The Jewish Museum, is project director.

In addition to portraits from the collection of The Jewish Museum in New York, the exhibition includes works borrowed from other collections, such as the American Jewish Historical Society, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center, the Detroit Institute of Arts, The Maryland Historical Society, the Chrysler Museum, The Wadsworth Athenaeum and the Museum of the City of New York, as well as synagogues and private collections in Newport, Boston, New York and other cities. In fact, some of the works in this show are owned today by direct descendants of the original families.

The exhibition catalog is being published by The Jewish Museum, New York, and Prestel. The 112-page book includes 15 color plates, 94 black and white images, a foreword by Joan Rosenbaum, Helen Goldsmith Menschel Director of The Jewish Museum, and essays by Richard Brilliant and Ellen Smith. The softcover edition will be available in the Museum's Cooper Shop for $25. The catalog features illustrations of every portrait shown in the exhibition, as well as detailed descriptions of each sitter and work.

The exhibition is supported by The Skirball Foundation, the Maurice Amado Foundation, The Morris S. and Florence H. Bender Foundation, The Bank of New York, Erica Jesselson and Family, the Roy J. Zuckerberg Family Foundation and Carol and Arthur Goldberg.

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