Jews Praying in the Synagogue on the Day of Atonement. Maurycy Gottlieb, 1878. Oil on canvas. Tel Aviv Museum of Art. (Gift of Sidney Lamon. Tel Aviv Museum of Art)

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Gottlieb, Maurycy

(1856–1879), artist. Among the founders of modern Jewish art, Maurycy Gottlieb is prized in Poland as one of the most talented students of the great national artist Jan Matejko. Born in Drohobycz, Galicia (mod. Drogobych, Ukraine), Gottlieb was sent by his father to a German-language elementary school and to the Polish high school in his native city. Throughout his life German was Gottlieb’s chief language. His Jewish education was not extensive, though he attended heder.

Head of a Jewish Bride. Maurycy Gottlieb, ca. 1878. Oil on panel. The Israel Museum, Jerusalem. (© The Israel Museum, Jerusalem/ The Bridgeman Art Library)

Gottlieb’s artistic talent was strongly encouraged by his family (three other brothers became artists, including the well-known Leopold). In the course of his brief life he studied at the art schools of Vienna, Kraków, and Munich, and counted among his teachers some of the prominent academic artists of the 1870s. He was not the first Polish Jew to become an artist, but perhaps was the first to aspire to be both a “Polish” and a “Jewish” artist. Inspired by the dramatic national historical paintings of Matejko, he too tried his hand at depicting scenes from Poland’s past and also executed several paintings in the popular orientalist fashion. Yet he also painted a number of works with overtly Jewish subject matter, including a scene of a Jewish wedding, two paintings of the Jewish heterodox philosopher Uriel da Costa, illustrations to Gotthold Lessing’s play Nathan der Weise (Nathan the Wise), portraits of several prominent contemporary Jewish figures, and depictions of famous Jewish literary figures (Shylock and Jessica, and Jankiel the musician from Adam Mickiewicz’s Pan Tadeusz). He also produced a number of fascinating and revealing self-portraits, one in the guise of a Polish nobleman, another in Arab dress, and yet another in the clothing of the central European bourgeoisie. His most famous work is his large painting Jews Praying in the Synagogue on the Day of Atonement, executed in 1878 [see image top right].

For his Jewish contemporaries, Gottlieb was living proof that Jews could succeed in the plastic arts, just as they had succeeded in literature and music, while Poles praised his patriotism and his efforts to make a place for himself in the world of Polish culture. After his untimely death from complications deriving from a throat infection at the age of 23, Jewish assimilationists, Polish advocates of Jewish acculturation, and representatives of the new Jewish nationalism all claimed him as their own. Gottlieb’s reputation was kept alive in Poland by several important exhibitions in the interwar period. In Israel his posthumous reputation was greatly enhanced by an exhibition held in 1991, and by the publication of the catalog to this show. There and throughout the Jewish world Gottlieb has come to be regarded not only as a father of Jewish national art, but also as an important witness to the rich Jewish spiritual heritage of Eastern Europe that was destroyed by the Nazis.

Tańczący chasydzi (Dancing Hasidim). Maurycy Gottlieb, ca. 1875. Pencil on paper. (Jewish Historical Institute, Warsaw)

It can be argued that Gottlieb’s art reflected his support for the ideals of Jewish integration into Polish culture. He was, no doubt, a proud Jew, and to at least some extent wished to be known as the “Jewish Matejko.” Among his most interesting paintings are two large works on the subject of the life of Jesus, Christ Preaching at Capernaum (1878–1879) and Christ before His Judges (1877–1879), which depict Jesus as both a Jew and a universalist figure preaching brotherly love and toleration. It is likely that in these paintings Gottlieb was addressing the subjects of ethnic and national discord in his native Galicia, and in particular the painful subject of antisemitism, from which he had suffered as a student at the Kraków School of Fine Arts. In addition to displaying the universalist idea of Jesus that all men are brothers, Gottlieb is reminding his audience that Jesus remained throughout his life a loyal Jew.

Suggested Reading

Nehama Guralnik, ed., In the Flower of Youth: Maurycy Gottlieb, 1856–1879 (Tel Aviv, 1991); Ezra Mendelsohn, Painting a People: Maurycy Gottlieb and Jewish Art (Hanover, N.H., 2002).