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Representations of Jews and Jewishness in English painting, 1887-1914

Gross, Peter (2004) Representations of Jews and Jewishness in English painting, 1887-1914. PhD thesis, University of Leeds.

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Abstract

This thesis concerns itself with pictorial representations of Jewish subjects in the period between the Anglo-Jewish Historical Exhibition on 1887 and the Twentieth Century Art Exhibition at the Whitechapel in 1914, on the eve of the First World War. It is organised in two parts. Its beginning and end, so the introductory first chapter argues, can be glimpsed in Barraud's celebratory painting of Lord Lionel Rothschild being sworn into parliament (painted 1872,25 years after the event) and the alienated Jewish subjects of the East End hauntingly captured by Mark Gertler in the years immediately preceding World War I. The first part is devoted to the analysis of what the author identifies as an Anglo-Jewish artistic discourse. Its defining characteristics emerge, so the author argues, in the Anglo-Jewish Historical Exhibition held in honour of Queen Victoria's golden jubilee at the Albert Hall in 1887. These characteristics include a deliberate attempt to visualise the Jewish community as a well-integrated part of middle / upper-class English society, sharing with the latter a past, a present and a future. This present and future include also the civilising mission of empire. By contrast, the immigrant East End of London is emphatically not part of this discourse. After a detailed reading of the Exhibition, two case studies are presented in this part of the thesis: the painters Solomon J. Solomon and John Singer Sargent, the former being an observant yet acculturated London Jew and the latter being a non-Jewish American painter then resident in London. Their works discussed here span the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. The chapter on Solomon J. Solomon is presented with a focus on a number of paintings that can be seen to thematise an Anglo-Jewish discourse. Among these are single and group portraits that show Jewish sitters as successful members of English society. Especially noteworthy are "mixed" groups that show Jewish and Gentile sitters together in a semi-neutral space of middle and upperclass sociability and civic ritual. Solomon's monumentally sized Allegory of the relationship between the Old and the New Testament, while offering an ostensibly harmonising vision, is perhaps Solomon's more daring and problematic work, since it re-inscribes the supersession of Judaism by Christianity. The chapter on Sargent's portraits of Jewish sitters revisits the thesis that Sargent's images encode anti-Semitic stereotypes. The author proposes to read these paintings from the point of view of their contemporary reception. The documents adduced are interpreted to show that while some of Sargent's paintings did sometimes play to deeply embedded anti-Semitic stereotypes among his critics, they were just as often openly admired as masterpieces of character depiction. Thus emerges a style of heightened characterisation that could stop short of caricature in some cases, but that could also capture qualities that the painter admired in sitters some of whom, such as the Wertheimers, he considered friends. The second part of the thesis is titled An Offer of Integration. In parallel to the first part, it begins with a detailed reading of an exhibition, the Exhibition of Jewish Arts and Antiquities held at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1906. The author argues that this show, with its significant location now in the heart of the East End, represented an offer of integration towards the immigrant communities of the East End. At the same time, it could be seen as a response to the Aliens Act of 1905 which brought immigration from Eastern Europe largely to an end. The author argues that the show constituted a part of an active programme of, as the author names it, Anglification: a cultural and educational project aimed at transforming immigrants into Englishmen (and -women). In relation to this programme, the author places three chapters on three modernist painters who painted scenes in the East End in the first and second decades of the 20th century: William Rothenstein, Alfred Wolmark and Mark Gertler. Rothenstein "discovered" the "aliens" of the East End in ca. 1905 and produced several paintings of religious subjects over the next two years, culminating in Carrying the Law. The author posits that Rothenstein, an acculturated Jewish man of German-Jewish background from Bradford, painted scenes of Jewish prayer and study in a broadly Rembrandtesque, late impressionist mode and sought to foreground their spiritual depth and nobility, rejecting the picturesque and anecdotal genre established in more conservative painters such as Pilichowski. Especially in Jews mourning in synagogue, almost all narrative detail (synagogue furniture, scrolls, books) have been eliminated and the painting relies for it's a/effect entirely on the antique effect of the full-length prayershawls (typical of Eastern European Jews - Anglo-Jews preferred the scarf shaped small prayershawls) on the interiority of the praying men. The emphasis on interiority and spirituality, and the exploitation of the archaic black-and white aesthetic of the full-length prayershawl, was to set a precedent for a number of modernist painters engaging with Jewish subjects, such as Jacob Kramer. By contrast with Rothenstein, so the author argues, Alfred Wolmark took a different position towards his "Jewish paintings". Again, this represents a relatively short phase in his oeuvre, preceding his colourist phase. In The Last Days of Rabbi Ben Ezra (1903), Wolmärk undertook to translate Robert Browning's well-known poem into the artistic idiom of a Rembrandtesque Eastern European Jewry. As a conclusion, the epilogue revisits the 1956 Tercentenary Exhibition to trace how enduring the Anglo-Jewish discourse was.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Academic Units: The University of Leeds > Faculty of Performance, Visual Arts and Communications (Leeds) > Fine Art, History of Art & Cultural Studies (Leeds)
Depositing User: Ethos Import
Date Deposited: 16 Jul 2010 15:06
Last Modified: 07 Mar 2014 10:21
URI: http://etheses.whiterose.ac.uk/id/eprint/971

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