Friday, October 5, 2018

USA: Just a Hint of Jews and Judaism in The MET's American Wing Courtyard

William Wetmore Story. Libyan Sibyl, marble, 1860, this carving 1861. NY, NY. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2017
Augustus Saint-Gaudens. The Children of Jacob H. Schiff, marble relief, 1884, this carving 1906-07. NY, NY. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018
William Jay and John Bolton,  Jubal and Miriam Window, painted and stained leaded glass, made for the organ loft of Holy Trinity Church in Brooklyn (Now St. Anne and the Holy Trinity), 1843-48. NY, NY. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
USA: Just a Hint of Jews and Judaism in The MET's American Wing Courtyard
by Samuel D. Gruber

Today. New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art (MMA) is very much as Jewish place - as Jewish as any other cultural institution in the city where for more than a century Jews have been major supporters and consumers of "high" culture: the fine arts, classical music, and  well-designed architecture, home furnishings, and fashion.

It wasn't always like this. Well into the post-World War II period the MMA was a very old money and blue blood kind of place. The art that was collected and displayed reflected contemporary ethic, racial, religious, and class distinctions. The MET favored Old Master paintings and was slow to collect contemporary art. This inherent conservatism allowed the successful development of other more innovative museums in Manhattan - the Museum of Modern Art (founded 1929), the Whitney Museum of American Art (founded 1939), and of course the Jewish Museum, with a collection begun in 1904, but only opened to the public in 1947. It would not be until 1968 that a group of artists and activists founded The Studio Museum of Harlem to highlight the work of African-American artists.

So we don't usually go to the MET to look for Jewish art or even art for or about Jews. That art was mostly "ghettoized" up the street at the Jewish Museum, though now the MMA's 20th century and modern collections are  filled with scores of works by Jewish artists, as good as any collection in the world. Still, if you are curious enough, you'll find some interesting Jewish "traces" even in the grand court of the museum's American Wing, which is filled with American Renaissance sculpture, fragments of Tiffany glass and mosaic, and on the mezzanine levels, stupendous collections of American art glass, ceramics and metalwork. This isn't "Jewish" art of any sort, but does demonstrate those occasional moments when Judaism and Jews poked their head above the waters of the 19th-century American art scene. Significantly, the MMA does not own any work by the sculptor Moses Jaboc Ezekiel, the one internationally acclaimed American-Jewish artist of the 19th century.

Here are my three "Jewish" finds in the MMA American Wing courtyard. Maybe there are more!

1. William Wetmore Story's provocative marble seated statue of the Libyan Sibyl, created in 1860,
with this carving made in 1861. The Sibyl, who though carved in white marble is mean to be African, foresees the terrible fate of her people. This work was made the Civil War neared, and Story intended it as a anti-slavery "sermon in stone." The figure is semi-nude and bare-breasted, but she wears a distinctive ammonite shell headdress (suggesting the Egyptian god Amun) with the Hebrew tetragrammaton (four letter transcription of the unutterable name of God) inscribed. Prominently displayed around her neck is a pendant in the shape of a six-pointed star, which Story termed the "Seal of Solomon."  While not explicitly Jewish in any way, the work curiously, and presciently links the fight for African-American liberty with Jewish Biblical and mystical tradition. Of course in the 19th-century the use of Jewish biblical anti-slavery narrative and language to describe American slavery was commonplace by abolitionists.  And we see here long before Rabbis Joachim Prinz and Abraham Joshua Heschel marched with Martin Luther King in the 20th-century , blacks and Jews were united in this very very white sculpture.

William Wetmore Story. Libyan Sibyl, marble, 1860, this carving 1861. NY, NY. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
William Wetmore Story. Libyan Sibyl, marble, 1860, this carving 1861. The Hebrew tetragrammaton (four letter transcription of the unutterable name of God) is inscribed on the headress. NY, NY. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
William Wetmore Story. Libyan Sibyl, marble, 1860, this carving 1861. NY, NY. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
2. Augustus Saint-Gaudens's marble relief sculpture of the children of Jewish banker and philanthropist Jacob Schiff, first commissioned and carved in 1884-1885, and then made in this copy as a gift to the MET from Jacob Schiff. Schiff the leading Jewish philanthropist of this day and responsible for the creation and support of scores of Jewish assistance, medical, cultural and educational initiatives, as well as donations to most many New York institutions. Unlike may of his Jewish contemporaries (and those later who have liked to have MET galleries named after themselves), he rarely if ever put his name on the buildings he funded (such as Bernard Hall at Barnard College). Sometimes called the Jewish Carnegie - is impact on late 19th and early 20th-century New York was enormous. In this relief, set on a wall and tucked behind the stairways to the courtyard mezzanines - and this very easy to miss - we see Mortimer Leo (1877-1931) and Frieda Fanny (1876-1958) Schiff and their Scottish Deerhound.

Augustus Saint-Gaudens. The Children of Jacob H. Schiff, marble relief, 1884, this carving 1906-07. NY, NY. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
Augustus Saint-Gaudens. The Children of Jacob H. Schiff, marble relief, 1884, this carving 1906-07. NY, NY. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018
Augustus Saint-Gaudens. The Children of Jacob H. Schiff, marble relief, 1884, this carving 1906-07. NY, NY. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018
3. William Jay Bolton's and John Bolton's painted and stained leaded glass window of Jubal and Miriam, made for the organ loft of Holy Trinity Church in Brooklyn (Now St. Anne and the Holy Trinity).  This is a Christian window - not a Jewish one - but it depicts the Biblical personages Jubal (Genesis 4:21) and the Prophet Miriam, sister of Moses, who plays such as large roll in the Book of Exodus, both of whom are closely associated with music and song.

The representations of  the two figures in the lower portion of the window are accompanied by images of a rich array of musical instruments inserted into the window tracery above. All kinds of contemporary instruments - harps, trumpets, violins, and drums - are shown, and this assemblage very much recalls popular Jewish illustration of the 150th Psalm.

The Bolton windows, inspired by Renaissance stained glass, were created from 1843-1848, and are first major program of figurative stained glass made in the United States.

William Jay and John Bolton,  Jubal and Miriam Window, painted and stained leaded glass, made for the organ loft of Holy Trinity Church in Brooklyn (Now St. Anne and the Holy Trinity), 1843-48. NY, NY. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
William Jay and John Bolton,  Jubal and Miriam Window, painted and stained leaded glass, made for the organ loft of Holy Trinity Church in Brooklyn (Now St. Anne and the Holy Trinity), 1843-48. NY, NY. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
William Jay and John Bolton,  Jubal and Miriam Window, painted and stained leaded glass, made for the organ loft of Holy Trinity Church in Brooklyn (Now St. Anne and the Holy Trinity), 1843-48. NY, NY. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
William Jay and John Bolton,  Jubal and Miriam Window, painted and stained leaded glass, made for the organ loft of Holy Trinity Church in Brooklyn (Now St. Anne and the Holy Trinity), 1843-48. NY, NY. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.

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