The Sabbath Rest. Szmul Hirszenberg, 1894. Oil on canvas. Ben Uri Gallery, The London Jewish Museum. (Image courtesy Ben Uri Gallery)

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Hirszenberg, Szmul

(1865–1908), painter, born in Łódź into an observant family. Despite the opposition of his father, a textile worker, Szmul Hirszenberg enrolled at the Kraków School of Fine Arts (1881–1883), where he was influenced by the historical school founded by the Polish painter Jan Matejko. He continued his studies at the Munich Academy (1883–1887) and in Paris at the Académie Colarosi (1889–1892). In 1892, Hirszenberg returned to Poland, living in Łódź and later (1904–1907) in Kraków.

One of Hirszenberg’s early works, inspired by the art of the older Polish Jewish artist Maurycy Gottlieb, was a symbolic painting, Uriel Acosta i Spinoza (Uriel d’Acosta and Spinoza; 1888). While recalling Rembrandt’s interplay of light and deep shadow, it also proclaimed Hirszenberg’s identification with Jewish dissenters. During the 1890s, Hirszenberg turned to genre scenes that depicted the lives of contemporary Jews. Using a lighter palette of blues and grays with impressionist brush strokes in his dramatic Cmentarz żydowski (Jewish Cemetery; 1892), he showed women mourning the pogrom victims of 1881–1882. In Wieści z Argentyny (News from Argentina, otherwise known as The Sabbath Rest; 1894), a dark, rather freely rendered work, accentuated by whites and pinks, a poor Jewish family, seated around the Sabbath table, reads a letter from a relative who has immigrated to South America [See image at top right]. At the turn of the century, Hirszenberg, inspired by the idea of Jewish national revival, created a series of programmatic works that show East European Jews’ displacement; these paintings became a series of Zionist icons.

Czarny Sztandar (The Black Banner). Szmul Hirszenberg, 1907. Oil on canvas. The Jewish Museum, New York. Photograph by John Parnell. (Gift of the Estate of Rose Mintz, JM 63–67. The Jewish Museum, New York / Art Resource, NY)

Hirszenberg’s Żyd-Wieczny Tułacz (Wandering Jew; 1899), which won a bronze medal at the International Exhibition in Paris in 1900, combined elements of Matejko’s romanticism and pathos with the subject of Jewish suffering under Christianity. Golus (Exile; 1904), known only through black-and-white reproductions since its location is unknown, served as the artist’s response to the 1903 Kishinev pogrom, and drew on Daumier’s The Fugitives (1868–1870). It depicts a group of Jews wandering in a timeless, snow-covered, empty landscape. Czarny sztandar (The Black Banner; 1907), a murky, dramatic painting, shows the funeral of Aharon Halberstam, the tsadik of Sandz (Sącz) who died in 1906, as collective trauma; a densely crowded community of bereaved, frightened Hasidim presses forward under a threatening, stormy sky. A contrasting work is the Spinoza wyklęty (Excommunicated Spinoza) of 1907, which shows the philosopher in seventeenth-century Dutch dress walking down the street and reading a book, while Orthodox members of the Jewish community withdraw from him in fear and anger. Hirszenberg directly experienced the confrontation between the old Jewish world and the new one explicitly addressed in these paintings.

In 1907, Hirszenberg left Poland and settled in Jerusalem, assuming a teaching position at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design. In the remaining year of his life, he continued to paint, portraying Jerusalem’s Jews and impressionistic landscapes.

Suggested Reading

Richard I. Cohen, Jewish Icons, Art and Society in Modern Europe (Berkeley, 1998); Susan Tumarkin Goodman, ed., The Emergence of Jewish Artists in Nineteenth-Century Europe (New York, 2001); Jerzy Malinowski, Malarstwo i rzeźba Żydów Polskich w XIX i XX wieku (Warsaw, 2000).