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American Jewish History 88.3 (2000) 341-360
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Max Weber's Jewish Paintings
A history of Jewish American art has yet to be written. Although there were a few nineteenth-century Jewish artists, such a history would really begin with the early twentieth century. Its range would include artists who work or have worked exclusively with Jewish themes and those who never manifested an interest in such subject matter. Many artists, such as Ben Shahn, Abraham Rattner, and Leonard Baskin, occupy a middle ground. They are mainstream figures who, from time to time, have explored Jewish imagery or whose works have been affected in some way by their Jewish heritage (but very few studies have been made of their Jewish works). 1 No single pattern seems to govern the ways in which these, and other, artists responded to their heritage other than that they would not forsake it or be subsumed by it.
In any such history, Max Weber, one of the most famous and highly esteemed early twentieth-century modernists, would occupy a significant place. He was among the very first, if not the first, to create a recognized body of work based on Jewish experiences. As a "mainstream" modernist, he created paintings and sculptures between 1909, when he returned from a four-year stay in Paris, and 1920 that have been carefully studied and are central to the history of American modern art. 2 But the work he created during the remainder of his career is less well known, particularly his Jewish paintings, which date with rare exception to the years after 1918. Yet during the 1920s and 1930s and on into the 1940s he was the major and most visible painter to use these themes and the artist whose Jewish works were most written about in the mainstream press. 3 [End Page 341] Altogether, he created perhaps as many as 60 paintings, prints and at least one sculpture devoted to Jewish subjects. 4 As a body they form a consistent vision of how Weber chose to remember the Jewish past while living in America.
Weber did not find his subject matter in the Bible, preferring instead to work within a very circumscribed range of genre themes: portraits of rabbis, occasionally with their wives, and scenes of men studying or discussing the holy books either at home or in study halls. Sometimes the men stand and talk, or they pray. On one occasion they dance. A unique work, dating from 1913, includes ceremonial objects. There is surprisingly little variation over a 40-odd year period which lasted until his death in 1961--no images of lighting the Sabbath candles, of Passover celebrations, of obvious shtetl or ghetto scenes. Although born in eastern Europe and raised in an Orthodox family, Weber chose primarily to paint--and to recall--bearded Jews at study and at prayer, a particular aspect of east European life that in America was and is covered by a sentimental haze, but an aspect that still helps define a set of root Jewish experiences and that serves as a connection to a past now more imagined than real for many. The current interest in klezmer music, for example, is part of the same desire to maintain, restore, or reconstruct connections to those root experiences.
Unfortunately, in all of the letters and memorabilia that Weber retained during his lifetime and which are now housed in the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, there do not seem to be any documents that help explain why he began to paint Jewish scenes around 1918 and why he chose from his memories and from his contemporary experiences such a circumscribed range of subjects. Even his daughter, Joy Weber, who still plays an active role in her father's posthumous career, is at a loss to explain his turn to this subject matter except to say that he remained a committed Jew his entire life. 5 This lack of information is particularly unfortunate since he was a significant and seemingly assimilated modernist (but who observed dietary laws) living at a time when...