The Kotel HaMaaravi, or the Western Wall, has been fundamental to Jewish consciousness since the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. It is not surprising, therefore, that it became a popular theme for artists, particularly in the 19th century, when many in the West, including notables such as U.S. Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, Herman Melville and Mark Twain, traveled to see “the Promised Land.”
I present here from my collection several of my favorite artistic depictions of this most sacred Jewish site.
Exhibited here is an original print of Marc Chagall’s The Wailing Wall, which he signed on the verso (not shown) “Marc Chagall Paris 1931-33 Le Mur des Pleurs.” The original painting hangs in the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.
Ambroise Vollard (1866-1939), one of the most important dealers in French contemporary art of his time, commissioned Chagall to illustrate the Jewish Bible. Taking on this assignment at this point in his career constituted an exceptional risk for Chagall because, having finally become renowned in the art world as a leading contemporary painter, he would now be withdrawing from the contemporary themes for which he was celebrated to make art that reflected an ancient past.
Although Chagall could have completed the project in France, he used the assignment as an excuse to travel to Eretz Yisrael, arriving there in February 1931. Feeling very much at home in a land of Yiddish and Russian speakers, he was impressed by the pioneering spirit of the kibbutzniks and he was deeply moved by the Western Wall and the other holy places. As he later told a friend, Eretz Yisrael gave him the most vivid impressions he had ever experienced. Where other artists had found inspiration in the unusual landscapes and people of the North African region, Chagall, as a Jew, had an entirely different perspective: he was not searching for mere external stimulus but rather for an inner spirituality from the land of his ancestors. Immersing himself in his work, he became engrossed in the broad spectrum of Jewish history, the Jewish people, and the Jewish land.
Between 1931 and 1934, Chagall worked obsessively on his Bible series, even going to Amsterdam to carefully study biblical paintings by Rembrandt and El Greco. He particularly loved the atmosphere of Jerusalem’s Jewish quarter and often walked its streets; as he told Franz Meyer, a Jewish German-Mexican financier, photographer, collector and Chagall biographer: “I did not see the Bible, I dreamed it. Ever since early childhood, I have been captivated by the Bible. It has always seemed to me and still seems today the greatest source of poetry of all time.” Indeed, Chagall described his experience at the Kotel in grand poetic terms:
I came to Palestine to examine certain ideas, and I came without a camera, without even a brush. No documentation, no tourist impressions, and nevertheless I am glad to have been there. From far and wide, they pour towards the Wailing Wall, bearded Jews in yellow, blue and red robes and with fur caps. Nowhere else do you see such despair and so much joy; nowhere else are you so shaken and yet so happy as at the sight of this thousand-year-old heap of stones and dust in Jerusalem…
Chagall’s depiction of the Kotel is far from being among his most recognized works – relatively few people have seen it or are even aware of it – but it remains among my personal favorites.
Born in Nogaisk, Russia, Saul Raskin (1878–1966) studied lithography in Odessa and later attended art academies in Germany, France, Italy and Switzerland before coming to the United States in 1904. Working in many media, he became a multifaceted artist who produced etchings, paintings, watercolors and even cartoons. Known for his draftsman-like attention to detail and for his realistic approach, he painted primarily scenes of Jewish life and lore, especially Jewish life on the East Side of New York.
Raskin famously illustrated many Hebrew texts, including Pirkei Avot (1940); the Haggadah (1941); Psalms (1942); the Siddur (1945); Kabbalah (1952) and other Jewish works, such as Hebrew Rhapsody (1959) and the etching displayed here, Ha-Kotel Ha-Maaravi, which he originally signed in both Hebrew and English.
Raskin promoted his belief that the working classes do not understand, and cannot relate to, an idealist art created and controlled by the wealthy because such art “failed to reflect the soul of the people which gives life to art.” The sign of a good work, he argued, was its ability to reflect that which was eternally human, including particularly the qualities of love, justice and freedom, and he maintained that artistic inspiration must come from experience. He specifically applied these beliefs to Jewish art and artists, and I would argue that his rendition of the Kotel shown here rises to that high standard.
After the war and between 1921 and 1960, Raskin visited Eretz Yisrael six times, and his trips yielded a series of paintings of Jewish life, among them twenty well-known lithographs of Jerusalem. At the time of his final visit at age 82, he found Israel to be “a new and exciting place” and published Personal Surrealism – paintings depicting his dreams.
Ephraim Moses Lilien (1874-1925), the first artist to become involved in the Zionist movement, was an active participant in three consecutive Zionist Congresses. As a member of the Democratic Faction, he stressed the need to foster Jewish culture, including the Jewish arts. He collaborated closely with Herzl, and his photograph of the Zionist leader on the Rhine Bridge has come to be the definitive pictorial representation of the Father of Modern Zionism. His Herzl portraits and his decorations for the Golden Book of the Jewish National Fund also became familiar to Jews all over the world. Along with Boris Schatz and others, he was a member of the committee formed to establish the Bezalel School of Art in Jerusalem (1905), where he taught the following year.
Many of Lilien’s etchings are views of Austria, Hungary, Damascus and Beirut, but his better-known works record his impressions of Eretz Yisrael. His drawings, executed mainly in India ink, show a crisp, elegant line and a strong contrast between black and white areas, and many of his etchings have entered the collective Jewish consciousness, even when Lilien is not recognized as the artist. For example, before I ever heard Lilien’s name decades later, I grew up picturing Abraham as depicted by his beloved and iconic work, which I first saw in my first grade “reader”: an old man with a long flowing white beard, clad in a desert robe and leaning his wrinkled hands on his staff, gazing lovingly skyward with a sweet and innocent face at a blazing, starlit sky somewhat evocative of Van Gogh’s The Starry Night. Another unforgettable etching, one of the most enduring and endearing works of Jewish art of all time, which is exhibited here, portrays an elderly Sephardic Jew looking up in awe at the Western Wall. Many of his works, including these two, have been the subjects of Israel- and JNF-issued stamps.
Born Meir Horodetsky (1891-1951), Gur-Arie studied at the Bezalel School of Art (1909-1911) and went on to teach painting and ivory carving there. A member of the Menorah group, he opened, together with Zev Raban, the Menorah workshop (1913) and later established the Workshop for Industrial Design (1923). A participant in the famous “Tower of David” Exhibition, he was a founder of the Union for Hebrew Art (1920). Among his projects is the framework for the decorations at the YMCA building in Jerusalem and his work, which remains highly popular, is exhibited worldwide, including at the Israeli Museum in Jerusalem.
One of the 20th century’s preeminent artists, Steinhardt (1887-1968) was a German Expressionist whose graphic works, especially woodcuts and etchings, are masterpieces of the medium. Recognized today as one of the most prominent woodcut artists using a neo-Gothic or biblical style, he is credited with refining the technique of block printing. As a teacher of graphics and later director of the Bezalel Art School in Jerusalem, he influenced a whole generation of Israeli artists.
The revival of the woodcut as a graphic medium began in the late 19th century, when artists like Gauguin and Munch transformed the woodcut from a narrative illustration into a tool to express individual ideas; graphic works also had a solid tradition in the history of Jewish art. An early disciple of German Expressionism, Steinhardt’s early subject matter was almost exclusively religious and social; he made engravings and lithographs and, later in Jerusalem, he devoted himself almost exclusively to woodcuts. He initially depicted Jerusalem scenes and inhabitants before turning to biblical subjects from the Book of Jonah (1952), the Book of Ruth (1955), landscapes, and imaginary themes. While his woodcuts in the 1930s are characterized by sharp black-and-white contrast, as in the instant example depicting the Kotel, his later work emphasized rhythm and the use of color. He visited Eretz Yisrael briefly in 1925 and made aliyah in 1933, settling in Jerusalem, where he was appointed head of the graphics department of the famed Bezalel School of Art (1949), of which he later served as director (1953-57).
The Moroccan-born Amram Ebgi (1939- ) made aliyah and settled in kibbutz Kfar Blum, where he became Torah-educated, learned Hebrew and English, and began drawing and painting. In 1958, he was awarded a scholarship to study art at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, and, four years later, kibbutz administrators gave him a painting studio and encouraged him to sell his work. Later, after serving in the Israeli army during the Six-Day War and returning to Kfar Blum, he continued to study art at Pratt Graphic Art Center in New York, where he developed an eclectic affection for printing, etching, wood carving, silk screen, intaglio, relief, stained glass, ceramics, and epoxy modeling.
Ebgi’s art is not specifically religious but rather reflects broad Jewish themes. Much of his work incorporates a bird, symbolic of Israel’s freedom; other symbols in his art include Israeli vineyards, menorahs, men in tallitot (prayer shawls), doves of peace and flora; some of his work is composed of as many as 60 separate elements or pieces. He has enjoyed one-man shows throughout the United States and Israel, his pieces have been on exhibit in leading museums across the world, and his distinctive art has been featured in holiday cards published by UNICEF and Hallmark.
Many non-Jewish artists were also attracted to the Kotel, which they overwhelmingly referred to as “The Wailing Wall” during the middle eighteenth century. Exhibited here are a few of my favorites from my collection.
The photographs of Felix Bonfils (1831-1885), which constitute important historical records of people, places and buildings in the Middle East, are considered comparable in beauty and documentary value to those of archaeologists. He took photographs in Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, Greece and Turkey, but it is his prints of Eretz Yisrael that provide particularly valuable information about the land and people there toward the end of the nineteenth century. Bonfils deliberately selected his subjects to preserve a vast range of information for geographical, ethnographic, biblical, archeological, architectural and historical studies, and his work was particularly important in that it spanned many decades and encompassed the period when the most momentous changes began to forever alter Middle Eastern landscapes and ways of life.
Shown here is an official etching of The Wall of Solomon by J. L. Gerome, one of the most familiar and beloved 19th-century depictions of the Kotel. The original 1876 painting (oil on canvas) sold for $2,312,500 in 1999.
Jean-Leon Gerome (1824-1904), one of the most popular and successful 19th-century French painters and sculptors, specialized in technically accurate depictions of historical scenes and was known for his theatrical realist painting conceptions. He made this rendering of the Kotel as part of his exotically complex Orientalist genre work, which was inspired by the native people and brilliant landscapes of North Africa. He was particularly enamored of the bazaars, mosques, souks, and dwellings of the Levant that he encountered during his many expeditions to Egypt and Eretz Yisrael, beginning in the late 1850s (He first traveled to Jerusalem in 1862).
In Solomon’s Wall, Gerome exhibits considerable solemnity as befitting a holy site, which he seems to emphasize with an almost spiritual light trickling down the wall. The detail shown on the stones is characteristic of his realist style, but he pays particular attention to the dress, gestures, and stance of the central bearded figure in a shtreimel-like hat who stands, seemingly in awe, with his arms extended outward while looking up at the Wall. One can easily imagine the non-Jewish artist himself standing at the Western Wall and looking up in similar awe at this holy and historic structure.
William Henry Bartlett (1809-1854) was a British landscape artist who became one of the foremost illustrators of topography of his generation and is perhaps best known for his numerous drawings rendered into steel engravings. He traveled extensively, as a result of which he created images that appeared in a series of travel volumes. In particular, he traveled through the Middle East (1839-1840), which is likely when he created the image of the Kotel exhibited here, and one of his published volumes is Walks about the City and Environs of Jerusalem (1840).
William Tipping (181- ?) traveled extensively in Europe and the Middle East in his twenties before returning and joining the family merchant business in Liverpool, where he published his sketches.
Oscar Pletsch (1830-1888) was a German illustrator who studied at the Dresden Art Academy. He developed his genre painting employing motifs from everyday and family life, particularly through his favored woodcut technique. He became one of the most important and popular children’s book illustrators of the 19th century, with publications also in England, France, Sweden and the United States.
With its initial publication on May 14, 1842, The Illustrated London News became the world’s first illustrated news magazine, combining news with accompanying images. Its coverage ran the spectrum of human interest, including serious coverage of worldwide news and articles about the arts and sciences, culture (including particularly detailed reporting on English royalty), and whimsical news and features. Its writers and journalists included Robert Louis Stevenson, Thomas Hardy, J.M. Barrie, Rudyard Kipling, Joseph Conrad, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie.