Images and Jewish Identity: Three Jewish Artists in Nineteenth-Century France

By Gozani, Tal | Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

Images and Jewish Identity: Three Jewish Artists in Nineteenth-Century France


Gozani, Tal, Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought


JEWISH HISTORIANS HAVE LONG LOOKED TO TEXTS, BE they literary, philosophical, religious, political, or historical, as expressions of modern Jewish identity. The visual arts, however, have rarely been exploited in this way by these same Jewish historians. [1] This is surprising since the very idea of an aesthetic vision of Judaism seems to offer a rich and radically new approach to expressing and understanding Jewish identity. Indeed, the novelty of Jewish artists exploring Jewish subject matter for purely secular purposes speaks volumes about the complexities of modern Jewish identity. [2] I want to explore this relationship between visual imagery and identity by focusing on the works of three French-Jewish artists-Edouard Moyse, Edouard Brandon, and Alphonse Levy--who struggled to create a new, visual vocabulary to capture an evolving modern Jewish life.

Seeking collectively to develop a new vocabulary to express their dual commitments to Jewish and Western cultures, these Jewish artists were also responding, in part, to the incomplete nature of Jewish social and cultural integration in the very land that had first granted political rights to Jews. [3] Seeking to counter both lingering anti-Jewish sentiments and the decline of traditional Jewish communities that were gradually eroding a positive sense of Jewish identity, Moyse, Brandon, and Levy used their canvases to paint new images of Judaism. In developing these new images, each of these three painters was faced with the same fundamental problem, namely, how to develop a repertory of positive, secular Jewish imagery where none such existed previously. Each of the artists responded to this potentially debilitating limitation by developing his own unique set of images out of his own specific artistic and personal concerns as well as his own idiosyncratic vision of Judaism and Jewish life. And yet, out of al l these individual efforts, also emerged a collective aesthetic view of Judaism.

Let me then turn to the contributions of these three French-Jewish artists of very different Jewish backgrounds, artistic styles, and aesthetic interests. I will first discuss, in very broad strokes, the visual recasting of Jewish religious life by Edouard Moyse and Edouard Brandon, and will then explore in greater depth the slightly more perplexing caricatures of Alphonse Levy.

It should be noted, biographically, that each of these three artists was fully ensconced in the French art world, trained with the great French masters, received formal artistic training at the Ecole des Beaux arts, and eventually gained fame by exhibiting at the annual Paris Salon. A good case in point of this emplacement is the first artist I want to consider, Edouard Moyse, who was such a fixture of the French artistic scene that he exhibited at the Salon every year for over 50 years!

Moyse (1827-1908) had moved to Paris from Alsace at a young age to train as an artist. Greatly influenced by his teacher, Michel Drolling (1786-1851), a well-known sacred history painter, Moyse's initial interest was in the depiction of monks. Fascinated by the solemn dignity and quiet presence of these monks, Moyse also produced a series of paintings of judges using similar techniques, which adapted these same features of dignity and sense of presence to the secular priests of the law. [4] When Moyse turned to Jewish subject matter in the 1880s, he translated this enduring aesthetic fascination with dignified self-sufficiency to a long series of paintings of rabbis. [5] Gaining great fame as "le peintre des rabbins," the painter of rabbis, Moyse believed that he could rehabilitate the image of Jews and Judaism simply by developing a new aesthetic vision of the rabbi as a figure imbued with respect. [6]

Jews stereotypically had been depicted as hunched-over old men with exaggerated body features such as an overgrown beard, elongated nose, protruding ears, and devil-like hands (Figure 1) [7] Moyse's rabbis were designed to challenge such negative stereotypes and to replace them with positive imagery. …

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