Uncovering Jewish stories at the ‘Van Gogh, Monet, Degas’ exhibition
ArtFrick Art Museum exhibition has several Jewish story lines

Uncovering Jewish stories at the ‘Van Gogh, Monet, Degas’ exhibition

The artwork narrates a history lesson following the French Revolution, a time when Jews were beginning to be included in society and its institutions.

“At the Milliner” (ca. 1882-1885). 
Painting by Edgar Degas
“At the Milliner” (ca. 1882-1885). Painting by Edgar Degas

Despite a dearth of religious iconography or works from Jewish painters, the current exhibition at the Frick Art Museum has streaks of Judaic relevance.

“Van Gogh, Monet, Degas: The Mellon Collection of French Art from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts” is an intimate assemblage representing the Romantic through Post-Impressionist periods. Among the nearly 70 pieces included are Vincent van Gogh’s “The Wheat Field behind St. Paul’s Hospital, St. Rémy” (1889), Claude Monet’s “Poppy Field At Giverny” (1885) and Edgar Degas’ “At the Milliner” (ca. 1882-1885).

Those works, as well as a prominently placed bronze cast of Degas’ “The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer,” provide visitors a chance to closely encounter canonical masterpieces. Less apparent, but equally significant, is the Jewish story told by the exhibition, explained Jill Joshowitz, a Pittsburgh native and New York University doctoral student specializing in Jewish art.

Whether it is Eugene Boudin’s “Beach Scene at Deauville” (1865), Edouard Manet’s “On the Beach, Boulogne-sur-Mer” (1868) or Gustave Caillebotte’s “A Man Docking His Skiff” (1878) each piece and its focus on “leisure” narrates a history lesson.

Following the French Revolution of 1789, “at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century, Jews were emancipated and incorporated into the body politic,” explained Joshowitz.

As the Jews’ previous “semi-autonomous” state gave way to social integration, industrialization was concurrently on the rise. Collectively, a public transformation was underway. By capturing “ordinary people” at play or landscapes and foliage, the Impressionists, in contradistinction to their artistic predecessors, were “very much grappling with modernity,” with their creations reflecting a rapidly changing reality, mirroring the Jewish experience, said Joshowitz.

“The Wheat Field behind St. Paul’s Hospital, St. Rémy” (1889).
Painting by Vincent van Gogh
Although visitors to the exhibition may deem images of sandscapes mundane, the pieces themselves were actually “revolutionary,” she added. “People going to the beach — that’s very modern. It’s not really something you see in Renaissance art; that’s not a thing. The Impressionists were very interested in capturing modern life, so even though it seems so traditional it was actually radical.”

Praise for the exhibition was echoed by Chantal Belman, art conservator for Fine Art Conservation Services/Carnegie Museum of Art, who said, “The show is small and intimate but impressive.”

Catching both Belman and Joshowitz’s interest were three paintings by Camille Pissarro: “Landscape, St. Thomas” (1856), “Coconut Palms by the Sea, St. Thomas” (1856) and “The ‘Royal Palace’ at the Hermitage, Pontoise” (1879).

Grouped together, the St. Thomas paintings are two of Pissarro’s “earliest known oil paintings” and “display a degree of sophistication unusual for early-career efforts. Both feature strong asymmetrical compositions anchored by paired coconut palm trees,” noted Museum materials.

Conversely, “The ‘Royal Palace’ at the Hermitage, Pontoise,” offers a wholly alternative scene where two largely unrecognizable characters — a woman and a small child — are standing along a path beset by leafless trees.

“I would suggest the audience take a minute when they go home after seeing the Frick show to look up Pissarro and see how similar and different his works are,” said Belman, who added that the painter was a “prominent and influential impressionist artist often called ‘the father’ or ‘the Impressionist.’”

His biography is another possible entry point for those seeking Jewish themes within the exhibition, said Joshowitz. Born Abraham Jacob Camille Pissarro on the island of St. Thomas in the Caribbean, “Pissarro’s father, Frederick, came to the island to deal with the affairs of his deceased uncle and ended up marrying his widow, Rachel. This led to the Pissarro family being ostracized by the St. Thomas community because Rachel was technically Frederick’s aunt.” Although Pissarro was of Sephardic Jewish descent, he “moved to France as an adult, and doesn’t seem to have had much of a Jewish identity.”

“A Man Docking His Skiff” (1878) Painting by Gustave Caillebotte
But Pissarro’s background, like that of the other artists featured within the exhibition, was of little interest to those who collected the works, explained Sarah Hall, chief curator and director of collections at the Frick Pittsburgh.

The nearly 70 works on loan from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts stem from a collection originally built by Paul and Rachel Mellon.

“The exhibition itself looks at the works as reflections of the Mellons’ collecting interests — and the Mellons were famously unconcerned with the biographies of the artists or the surrounding social/political history,” said Hall. “Their collecting was based entirely on very personal responses to individual works of art, and they would reject some of their favorite painters if the specific work didn’t connect with them.”

According to a press release from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Paul Mellon and his second wife, Rachel Lambert Mellon, began collecting 19th-century French art in the 1940s.

As in the ’40s, the time is ripe for a new appreciation of the collection, said Joshowitz. “Van Gogh, Monet, Degas” is a “celebration of modernity as we know it. People should look more closely at things we take for granted. For these artists it was visionary and radical, and what seems so familiar to us was new and exciting.” PJC

The exhibit can be viewed at the Frick Art Museum through July 8. Museum hours are Tuesday-Sunday 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.; Friday 10 a.m. – 9 p.m.; Closed Mondays. Members, Free; Adult non-members, $15; Senior/Student, $13; Youth 6–16, $8; Youth 5 and under, Free.

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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