Compelling Jewish paintings will be on view at London Art Week (digital) later this week

They include a rabbinic portrait by a Rembrandt student and five canvases by a Jewish woman artist, who'd make a good Ph.D. dissertation subject.

With 52 exhibitors and hundreds of artworks, there are bound to be canvases upon even obscure themes, so it’s no surprise to find biblical and religious-themed pictures at London Art Week (online July 3-10). These include Valerio Castello’s sensual “Lot and his daughters” (1650s) at Benappi Fine Art; Francesco Rustici’s dramatically-lit “Salome with the Head of John the Baptist” (c. 1624-5) at Galerie Canesso; and Luca Giordano’s “Death of Abel” (c. 1660), whose choreography—with interceding angel—recalls traditions of depicting the Binding of Isaac, at Nicolás Cortés Gallery.

José Gallegos y Arnosa’s “The Procession” (1857-1917, also at Nicolás Cortés) depicts the Venetian celebration, since 1577, of “the divine grace received by the city to end the plague,” per the gallery. “At the request of the doge, the promise was made that every year a procession would take place at the Church of the Redeemer.” (The festival also includes a c. 1620 ivory “St. Sebastian and St. Roch”—both invoked for plague protection—at Georg Laue, Kunstkammer. Talk about timely; we could use such grace now!)

A symphony of fingers, toes, and beads emerges in Matteo Civitali’s terracotta “Madonna and Child” (1460-80) at Desmet Gallery, and Sam Fogg, whom I’ve interviewed at the European Fine Art Fair in Maastricht, is selling an intriguing early-16th century Flemish pietà (a Virgin Mary cradling Jesus’ body), an arresting c. 1330 religious manuscript illumination, and a c. 1480 sandstone German John the Baptist head. And a recent discovery, a Cesare Franchi’s “Crowning of the Virgin” (c. 1590) at Klaas Muller, is among just a dozen miniatures remaining by the artist (1560-98), who was executed for murder in his late 30s.

But some of the works that stood out the most to me at London Art Week have Jewish stories to tell. “Most galleries are simply showing recent acquisition highlights,” LAW spokesperson Pippa Roberts tells me, “I think it is coincidence.” Coincidence or otherwise, here are those works (in chronological order):

(1) A c. 1660 rabbinic portrait by a student of Rembrandt’s

Christopher Paudiss. “Portrait of a Rabbi” (c. 1660). Oil on Canvas. 25 × 19.75 in. €35,000. Courtesy: Klaas Muller

By offering the Jewish sitter’s back and cropping the foreground, Christopher Paudiss literally makes the rabbi unapproachable and enigmatic. In his c. 1628 “Artist in His Studio” (MFA Boston), Rembrandt depicts a painter receding into the distance, as he eyes a canvas in the foreground. But the work is a tease; the painter can enjoy and critique his own work, although the viewer, who only sees the back of the canvas, may only imagine the painting-within-a-painting’s content. Paudiss has done something similar with the seated rabbi. We can only understand him in the sketchiest of ways.

This work dates ot a period in the artist’s life when he worked for Austrian archduke Leopold Wilhelm and Salzburg archbishop Guidobald Thun und Hohenstein. But Paudiss—who was born in the 1620s in Lower Saxony and died in Freising, Germany in 1666/67—studied as a young man (c. 1642) in Rembrandt’s studio. As is well known, Rembrandt lived adjacent to Amsterdam’s Jewish quarter and may have modeled his Jewish neighbors as Jesus. Perhaps Paudiss too met Dutch Jews during this period; he also painted “Old Jewish Scholar with Books and Globe.”

The dealer Klaas Muller notes that viewers cannot discern exactly at what the rabbi—bearded and clad in a black skullcap—is looking. Nor, I might add, is it clear what his state of mind is. Psychological portraiture is a signature of Rembrandt’s circle, as are arresting details like the dialog between that band of red color peeking out from beneath the collar and the gleaming yellow light hitting the back of the chair.

“He was a most unorthodox painter,” notes Muller. “The work looks modern and the composition (a portrait from the back!) is very original for a 17th century painting.”

(2) D̵a̵n̵t̵e̵'̵s̵ Daniel’s inferno

Simeon Solomon. “Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the Fiery Furnace” (1863). Watercolor on paper. 13 × 9 in. $365,000. Courtesy: Mireille Mosler.

The youngest of Michael Solomon and Catherine Levy’s eight children, Simeon was born in London in 1840. His father sold Leghorn hats and was “one of the firsts Jews to be named a freeman in London, a prerequisite to practicing business,” notes LAW dealer Mireille Mosler. Michael died when Simeon was in his teens; the latter learned studio drawing from his brother Abraham and Jewish subjects from sister Rebecca.

“Though negative stereotypes about Jews pervaded, Victorian society slowly accepted their presence,” Mosler adds. “In 1858, Lionel de Rothschild was the first Jew to assume a seat in the House of Commons. The same year, Solomon showed ‘Isaac Offered’ at the Royal Academy, the institution he would later reject as a pre-Raphaelite.”

[For related discussion, including of Rothschild, see Apollo magazine’s “The Jewish collectors who gave important early gifts to the V&A.”]

As a Pre-Raphaelite, a group which idealized pre-Renaissance morality, Solomon was in good company addressing religious subjects. “Solomon fit right in, although as a Jew he remained an outsider,” Mosler states. “This otherness, combined with his homosexuality and androgyny, caused his peers to perceive him as utterly exotic.” (Solomon was arrested for indecent exposure in a London public bathroom in 1873; he spent six weeks in jail, and his reputation suffered immensely. He became homeless and an alcoholic and died in 1905 at St. Giles, a workhouse.)

The 1863 picture at London Art Week dates to a decade before Solomon’s arrest. Derived from Daniel 3, the painting shows Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (שדרך, מישך ועבד נגו), three Jews whom Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar cast into a furnace when they refused, on pain of death, to worship his idols. Solomon has followed the biblical account by showing the trio unbound and under the protection of a fourth figure who looked to Nebuchadnezzar like a “son of God” (i.e. an angel).

Though Nebuchadnezzar had called for the fires to be increased sevenfold, the three emerge unscathed, without even smelling of smoke, which Solomon explains visually by the angel’s posture. The picture is “one of Solomon’s most ardently Jewish subjects, representing the protection granted by God to the Jewish heroes from the fiery furnace,” per Mosler.

A further note on the artist’s identity. Androgyny took on a “special significance” in England in the late-19th century, at a time when homosexual acts were legally forbidden, according to Mosler.

Solomon’s fellow Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones (1833-98) and symbolist artists Gustave Moreau (1826-98) and Fernand Khnopff (1858-1921) too represented androgynous figures, but Solomon’s such work drew upon “the Kabbalah’s perspective that Adam was created as both male and female, before being separated into two creatures, completed the notion of perfection of one gender,” Mosler writes. “This spiritual identity possibly helped him overcome some of the adversity of being different at the time.” He adds:

The red-headed figure on the left is Algernon Swinburne, the English poet who wrote about many taboos such as lesbianism, cannibalism, and sadomasochism. It has been suggested that Simeon portrayed himself on the right and his sister Rebecca as the angel, but there is no evidence to support this assumption. The suggestion does however raise the question of the remarkable similarity of Solomon’s favorite recurring facial types.

I note also Solomon’s beautiful signature (bottom left) and those delicate toes.

(3) A Jewish woman artist who would make a good art history dissertation

Antonietta Brandeis (1848-1926). Above: “Venice: The Palazzo Vendramin on the Grand Canal with a Lady alighting in a Gondola.” Oil on board. 6.5 x 9.25 in. £15,000. Below: “Rome: On the Palatine Hill” (c. 1890s). Oil on panel. 11.8 x 15.5 in. (framed). £18,000. Both images courtesy: Charles Beddington

Five works by Antonietta Brandeis (1848-1926), a lesser-known Jewish Czech woman artist who lived and worked in Catholic Italy, are part of the Charles Beddington display. The artist—who is also known as Antonie Brandeisova and Antonio Brandeis—painted Italian landscapes, genre scenes, portraits, and religious subjects for altarpieces, according to art dealership Trinity House. Brandeis, annoyed by her art being described as the “work of a woman,” appears to have signed some canvases “Antonio Brandeis,” per one source.

“She was one of the first females to receive academic instruction in the fine arts in Italy,” Trinity adds:

The full story of Antonietta Brandeis’s life remains unknown, but she seems to have been a woman who challenged social conventions on many levels: as a woman studying in an almost exclusively male academy; as a Bohemian-born woman of Jewish heritage working in a Catholic world; and as an ex-patriot female artist finding friendship among the decidedly patriarchal arts colony of Spanish painters in Venice. Almost nothing is known of the last two decades of her life except that she died in Venice just short of her 70th birthday in 1920.

Leopold Deliss, gallery manager at Charles Beddington in London, tells me that the gallery was initially and remains attracted to Brandeis, “because she is so excellent at catching the warmth and light of the scenes she paints. However she is a very interesting figure, being both a successful foreign artist, and a pioneering woman, working in Venice, and travelling in Italy.”

There is no book on the artist, about whom “there seems to be precious little known,” says Deliss, who is aware that Brandeis sent artworks for exhibition in London and Paris, and probably Germany and elsewhere. She also sold directly to patrons who “must have either ordered on ‘holiday’ in Venice, or placed orders after their return; essentially mail order.”

A pair of Brandeis works, under restoration, contain dated inscriptions (likely from the original purchaser) stating that they were purchased at “Munzte’s, Piazza San Marco.” Brandeis likely sold to tourists from shops. “In all probability, she also used any other opportunities to do so too,” Deliss says. “The dinner party circuit!”

Brandeis is an artist about whom more work ought to be done, but researchers will have to grapple with undated works. “We do see earlier works by her where she is rather more ambitious in approach—much larger figures, more complicated compositions, etc.,” Deliss says. “But it’s only really surmise to guess any dating.”

Brandeis trained as an artist before being accepted to the Venetian Academy—the first woman artist to gain entry—and she did so at a time when it wasn’t yet legal for a woman to study art, according to Deliss. “I don’t know of any religious works by her at all,” he adds. “I think as an artist working to meet the demands of tourists, essentially, she would have had her main eye on satisfying this commercial imperative.”

Neither Deliss nor Beddington knew Brandeis was Jewish. “Very interesting indeed,” he said. “She certainly merits further research, which I suspect will be ripe for the first student to apply themselves to her life.” Venice was always particularly tolerant, “and one would guess she was welcome, to the point of marrying a Venetian nobleman,” Deliss says. “She is an interesting figure, and we would very much like to know more about her.” (So would I!)

[For a discussion about Venice, Jews, and the arts—albeit three centuries prior—see my piece “Tintoretto and His Jewish Neighbors” in Mosaic magazine.]

The source for the artist’s Jewish identity which Trinity House quotes (without citing her by name) is Janet Whitmore, a scholar and professor. Whitmore is credited in a bio of the artist on the Rehs Galleries website, from which Trinity apparently cribbed.

“It sounds like you’ve already discovered that she is something of an enigma,” Whitmore tells me. “The evidence for her Jewish heritage is primarily that she was born in the largely-Jewish village of Miskowitz (also called Moskowitz) in Bohemia.”

That village also contains Catholic churches, so it appears to have not been segregated initially. Whitmore explains why I hadn’t found other sources for Brandeis’ Jewish identity: Published information is only in Czech, which I don’t read. She refers researchers to Bohemian genealogy websites and to a group studying Jewish cemeteries. (If anyone comes up with more info, please let me know!)

“Brandeis moved to Prague after the death of her father when she was in her early teens. She then moved to Venice when her mother remarried a Venetian man,” Whitmore says. “Again, we do not know the Venetian man’s name, but whoever he was, he probably had enough influence to get his step-daughter admitted to the Academy of Fine Arts there; this would have been very unusual at the time.”

“She must have been a courageous woman to challenge so many of the restrictions of her time,” Whitmore says.

(4) A Moorish bridge by a Polish-born Jewish artist

David Bomberg. The Moor’s Bridge (1935). Oil on canvas. 20 × 26 in. Courtesy: Osborne Samuel.

Born David Garshen Bomberg into a Polish Orthodox Jewish family in England, the artist (1890-1957) is today recognized as one of the best British painters of the period, and inspiration to the next generation of artists, including Jewish painters León Kossoff (1926-2019) and Frank Auerbach (born 1931). That’s according to Tania Sutton, director of London’s Osborne Samuel Gallery.

“For many artists from the fertile and radical post war period, David Bomberg was seen as the father figure of several streams of painting style,” she told me. “It could be argued that during his lifetime, his religion and heritage held back his success.”

Growing up in Birmingham, Bomberg was the seventh of 11 children, per Wikipedia. His father Abraham, a Polish Jewish immigrant leatherworker, was Orthodox, while his mother Rebecca was less so. The latter, per Wikipedia, supported Bomberg’s art. When he struggled financially, painter John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) and the Jewish Education Aid Society assisted with the cost of his studies.

Bomberg’s “Vision of Ezekiel” (1912), at the Tate, seems to depict the prophet’s biblical vision (chapter 37) of reanimated dry bones. “Bomberg may have chosen this text after the sudden death of his mother. The pair had been close and he may have found consolation in this positive theme,” per the Tate, which adds he “was deeply interested in the Old Testament and Jewish history.”

The painting of the Moorish bridge in Ronda, Spain—which has been exhibited at Jerusalem’s Israel Museum and London’s Royal Academy—is dated 1935, a year after the artist and his future wife (and fellow artist) Lilian Holt moved to Ronda.

“Lilian hoped that the town’s dramatic topography might inspire Bomberg’s work, in the same way as Toledo and Cuenca had earlier done,” per the catalog. “Her instinct proved well-founded.” The entry adds:

Bomberg not only considered Ronda the most interesting town in southern Spain, but was immediately struck by its surrounding amphitheatre of mountains and “the gorge—a stupendous rent 250–300 ft wide & 400 ft deep.” The ravine initiated a series of charcoal drawings emphasising the violence of the rock’s fracturing. A mirroring of formations on either side suggested seismic rupture, while the river Guadalevin, coursing the gorge, might be imagined as constantly eroding its nether reach.

The work, which Christie’s sold for £85,000 in 2018, dates to a period when the artist and family had a “harsh existence, living hand to mouth,” Christie’s states. “This austerity brought about a productivity and a desire to work quickly, which resulted in bold landscapes that celebrated the majesty of the scenery, often painted at dusk or at night by candlelight.”

The artist’s widow recalled that a work like this one could take merely a few hours to make. There’s a little echo of Cézanne in the picture, I think, although Bomberg’s palette is quite different. I particularly enjoy that powerful orange—at stage right, just left of the center—which juts up like a flame.

One thing is clear. This artist loved paint.