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Confronting Catastrophe: Pray Or Fight Carvalho’s Rephidim

Barely redeemed from Egypt, the Jewish people faced a terrible foe. Amalek attacked without warning, without reason. True, Israel had tried the patience of G-d, first complaining about bitter waters at Marah, insufficient food in the Wilderness of Sin, and finally lack of water again at Rephidim. But the Children of Israel were inexperienced at trusting G-d, terribly new to the ways of faith with an invisible Deity. Still, Amalek attacked the stragglers wantonly, with nothing to gain. The Jewish People were forced to do battle with him at Rephidim, with Joshua leading the fray while Moses, Hur and Aaron ascended the hill to implore G-d for help. The drama is undeniable, but why did the American artist Solomon Nunes Carvalho choose to paint this subject sometime around 1848, making it the earliest Biblical painting by an American Jewish artist?

This diminutive oil painting, Moses Before the Amalakites, is only 16 x 20 inches and was sold recently at an auction at Kestenbaum & Company. It is the only surviving Biblical narrative that Carvalho created and has no obvious pictorial precedent in the history of this somewhat obscure subject. Nonetheless, it is an impressive example of an academic depiction of a Biblical subject, a motif that fell into disfavor by the mid-19th Century. Aside from itinerant provincial craftsmen, most American artists were concerned with genre painting, portraits or works that celebrated the brave, new world of American expansionism.

Carvalho (1815-1897) was born into a Sephardic family in Charleston, South Carolina and was deeply involved in Jewish communal affairs his entire life. He had a life-long relationship with Isaac Leeser, a major traditionalist figure in early American Judaism. (Leeser’s accomplishments include founding the Jewish Publication Society, publishing the Occident, the first successful Jewish newspaper, the first translation of the Sephardi prayerbook and the first American translation of the Bible.) Carvalho’s artistic career was mainly based on portraiture, including Abraham Lincoln and U.S philanthropist, Judah Touro. Additionally, he was official photographer in 1853-1854 for General John Charles Fremont’s ill-fated expedition to map out the most desirable transcontinental railway.

Before Carvalho embarked on his adventure across the American continent, he painted this rather extraordinary painting. In spite of its small size, the painting possesses an epic scale with the figures of Moses, Hur and Aaron appearing monumental in comparison with the diminutive figures in battle below on the left. Although cropping indicates that the painting was probably initially larger, it remains a powerful vision. Below, the Amalakite king is sprawled dead, across his fallen horse, as flailing arms, swords and charging horses indicate an Israelite victory.

In sharp contrast, Moses seems less than confident. His bearded head is thrown back anxiously imploring the heavens above while one upraised hand is open in supplication and the other is clenched around his famous staff. Aaron on the right calmly concentrates all his efforts at keeping Moses’ arm upright, forming the most stable leg of the pictorial foundation. The bareheaded Hur is on the left, similarly supporting the prophet’s arm even as he anxiously turns his head to watch the progress of the battle below. All three are clothed in voluminously rendered robes, the subtle shifts in color contrasting with the almost monochromatic battle scene.

The steadfastness of Aaron only accentuates the narrative tension created by the consternation of Hur over the battle and the heartfelt pleadings of Moses. If Moses’ concentration guaranteed military success for Israel, why was Hur worried and why was Moses not reassured? The answer may lie in the fact that supplication to G-d is no guarantee of Divine blessing. Our relationship with G-d is considerably more complex, both then and now.

It is still unclear why Carvalho chose to paint this particular subject. The emerging experiences of American Jews seen in the tensions developing between the native Sephardic communities and the newly arrived middle European Jews must have concerned him as well as the challenges of settling a vast continent filled with Christians and Indians. As a believer in traditional Judaism, he was deeply concerned by the nascent American Reform movement. Whatever motivated him, his concept of the Children of Israel being, in one way or another, exposed and subject to attack drove a complex vision of faith and struggle to maintain Jewish life in the New World. His insight still serves us well.

Kestenbaum & Company – 12 West 27th Street, New York, N.Y. 10001. (212) 366-1197.

I gratefully acknowledge the background information gleaned form the Encyclopedia Judaica and the Yeshiva University Museum Catalogue, The Sephardic Journey (1992) quoted in the Kestenbaum Catalogue.


Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Please feel free to contact him with comments at www.richardmcbee.com.

About the Author: Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Contact him at rmcbee@nyc.rr.com


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