The Soul Of An Artist

Yom Kippur

The story behind this Maurycy Gottlieb painting of a shul on Yom Kippur is fascinating. (Here’s a link to a much larger pic of the painting.)

The painting is held at the Tel Aviv Museum. Its website notes:

The painting before us was done in Vienna, and is one of three masterpieces on religious themes painted by Gottlieb which reflect the personal conflict of the artist as to his identity as a Jew, a Polish citizen or a man of the Enlightenment. However, in this painting, Gottlieb does not hesitate to depict himself as a Jew among his fellow-Jews, in the synagogue, on the Jews’ holiest day of the year. It is possible that towards the end of his short life Gottlieb resolved his conflict of identity. [In his work, he] He chose to depict himself in the context of Jewish tradition and culture, but also, as an independent person, enlightened, unafraid to stand up on his own.

The painting is based on the artist’s memories of the synagogue in his childhood home of Drohowicz. Of the twenty figures in the painting, 15 are of those closest to the artist: his parents, his fiancee Laura and her family, and his own self-portrait which appears three times at different ages: In the center of the picture, he appears to be 22, as he was at the time the picture was painted; on his neck lies a medallion with a Star of David and his initials in Hebrew. On the left, the same medallion may be seen hanging on the neck of Gottlieb as a young child, dressed in holiday finery with an open prayer book before him. On the right side, Gottlieb may be seen as a youth looking aside from his prayer book.

His fiancee, Laura, appears twice. On the left, she stands up [in the women’s gallery], holding a closed prayer book and on the right, she bends over, whispering to her mother.

The painting excels in masterful techniques, beginning with the layers of color, some semi-transparent and others opaque, and ending with an rich impasto of three-dimensional brush strokes and engravings in the paint with the help of the sharp point of the brush handle. The drapes and rugs are depicted in exquisite detail.

One year following the completion of the picture, Laura Rosenfeld married Leo Henschel. Two weeks later Gottlieb died suddenly following a short illness. There are those who say he committed suicide due to unrequited love for Laura. On the Torah mantle may be seen an inscription dedicated to the memory of the dear, departed Moshe (Maurycy) Gottlieb of blessed memory. Gottlieb explained that an urge came upon him to write his own epitaph. His father, who saw the work, strongly protested and Gottlieb rubbed it out, but later replaced it. The painting may indeed be an epitaph to the life and world view of Maurycy Gottlieb.

Somehow the soul of the artist touched a truth even he did not comprehend. Perhaps the most poignant Jewish painting ever.

[For those of you familiar with Chabad trivia, the woman at the upper right looks suspiciously like Mindy Feller, shtikhye.]

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