Jewish Heritage Report
Vol. I, Nos. 3-4 / Winter 1997-98
Portrait Exhibition at Jewish Museum, New York

American Jewish Portrait Exhibition at Jewish Museum, New York

The most remarkable thing about the 87 portraits of prosperous American Jews recently on view at the Jewish Museum in New York in Facing the New World: Jewish Portraits in Colonial and Federal America, is that there is nothing in any of the portraits to indicate that the sitters are, indeed, Jewish. The works - often by the finest artists of the colonies and young Republic - were painted between 1700 and the 1830s and show a cross section of the small, elite, mostly Sephardic American Jewish community. Curator Richard Brilliant, better known for his insightful publications on ancient Roman portraiture, makes a case for the use of the portrait by Colonial Jews as a means of expressing their status, but also their assimilation into the egalitarian society of early America. There are no Jewish insignia, no Hebrew inscriptions, no religious suggestions in any of these works, but one would be wrong to think that religion was meaningless or insignificant to the sitters. In other aspects of their lives these same men and women -- they are the ones described in Stephen Birmingham's 1971 bestseller, The Grandees (considered too general to be included in the bibliography?) -- were founders of America's earliest congregations: Shearith Israel, Mikveh Israel, etc.. But in these portraits, religion is put aside in favor of social respectability.

The Jewish Museum exhibit allowed the viewer to come face to face with some of the most notable Jewish personages of early American history such as Rebecca Gratz, Harmon Henricks, Mordacai Manuel Noah and Major Mordacai Myers. For those who value Jewish monuments, two of the individuals included have special meaning - Commadore Uriah Phillips Levy and Abraham Touro. Levy is one of the founders of historic preservation in the United States, and is credited with saving Thomas Jefferson's estate, Monticello. Touro set an example (too rarely followed) for synagogue founders and their descendants, by leaving an endowment for upkeep and repairs in perpetuity for the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island. Due to his foresight, the synagogue still stands.

Some of the early portraits retain stylistic elements of Italian and Spanish Baroque painting. One thinks of the life-size portrait of bewigged Yoseph de Yitzhak Barukh Caravalho from Venice, painted in 1697, or the portrait of one of England's founding Sephardim, Dr. Fernando Mendes (1647-1724). The American portraits, however, are mostly more severe, reflecting northern European taste, and particularly the portrait tradition of Holland and England. There too, Jews often commissioned portraits from prominent artists such as Rembrandt (Dr. Ephraim Hezekiah Bueno) and Gainsborough (Dr. Isaac Henrique Sequeira). Rarely, except in the cases of engraved frontispiece portraits of (often religious) authors, were indications of the sitter's religion included.

This collection of American Jewish portraits contains works by many leading artists, with more than a few by John Wesley Jarvis, Gilbert Stuart, and Thomas Sully. The choice of the artist as much as the demeanor and accouterments of the sitter demonstrate the extent (or desire) of Jewish entry into early American society.

Facing the New World was accompanied by the publication of an elegant well-illustrated catalogue, published for the Jewish Museum by Prestel (ISBN 3-7913-1863-2). It is informative about the subjects and the artists without being long-winded. Richard Brilliant and Ellen Smith have contributed stimulating essays to this Who's Who of American Jews.
- Samuel Gruber

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Updated: 23-July-98