Pen and Ink Art Translations

19th-Century Judaica

From the preface to the exhibition catalogue of the collection of Mr. Strauss at the Universal Exposition of 1878 in Paris, by Georges Stenne

The remarkable collection of works of Jewish art that is described in this catalogue is probably the only one of its kind. Through hard work and with conscientious and persistent research in France and abroad, Mr. Strauss was able to bring together this series of art objects of such a distinctive nature, which are very interesting from all points of view.

We know that in order to prevent idolatry, the Decalogue forbade Jews to reproduce any image or any figure of a living being. Therefore the artistic domain of this people was necessarily limited while they lived in the Holy Land, and it remained so with Jews as they were dispersed throughout the nations and continued to strictly observe Biblical commandments.

But the artistic instinct, which is innate to man, is so powerful that, despite the explicit prohibition of the law and their respect for the divine word, the Jews could not remain total strangers to the visual arts, especially in Europe. Indeed, despite prejudice, religious hatred, and persecutions, the Jews were never absolutely separate from the Christians. There were always enough points of contact between the two populations that the milieu could exert its influence and promote artistic development in the Jews.

But, by the very fact of their precarious situation, the limited activity of Jews in this field took a particular and very circumscribed direction. Always persecuted, unsure of tomorrow, and always running the risk of being expelled from the country where they lived, they could hardly think of great decorative works for their synagogues, which were very simple, or their residences, from which the caprice of a prince or the fury of the mob could drive them at any moment. Their only joys and consolations were an unshakeable loyalty to their faith and a deep, exalted love of family.

All the art that they produced is directly or indirectly related to the movable objects of public or private worship. Private worship was an integral part of their home life: every fact and action of existence had become rule-based for them and the occasion for a ceremony that was both familial and religious.