Impressionism and Jewish Art
I had something I painted from my window in Le Havre: the sun in the fog and in the foreground some masts sticking up. They wanted to know its title for the catalogue; [because] it couldn’t really pass for a view of Le Havre I replied, ‘Use Impression.’ Someone derived ‘Impressionism’ from it and that’s when the fun began.[i]
– Claude Monet
During World War II, Erich Auerbach, a German-Jewish professor of Philology, took refuge in Turkey, and wrote his masterwork, a collection of essays analyzing almost all of Western literature, titled Mimesis. The first essay, Odysseus’ Scar,[ii] compares the narrative structure of two examples from two literary traditions of antiquity: Greece and Israel, drawing on Homer’s Odyssey, and the Akeidah narrative from Genesis 22:1-19. In the Odyssey, “no contour is blurred… [the story is] orderly, perfectly well-articulated, uniformly illuminated… brightly and uniformly illuminated, men and things stand out in a realm where everything is visible.”[iii] Literarily, Homer paints a picture exquisitely and uniformly, clearly, even copiously, defining events, people, and places. Auerbach asserts “The digressions are not meant to keep the reader in suspense, but rather to relax the tension. “[iv]
In contrast, the Akeidah narrative depends on the blurring effect created by the economy of detail. “God says, ‘Take Isaac, thine only son, whom thou lovest.’ … he may be handsome or ugly, intelligent or stupid, tall or short, pleasant or unpleasant—we are not told. Only what we need to know about him as a character in the action, here and now, is illuminated.” [v] We are only told about the crux of the story: Isaac’s intense significance to Abraham. Extraneous details are omitted, and we never wander amidst the individual trees, unable to see the forest. The gestalt lies before our eyes, and we always feel the arc of the narrative.
Paintings tell stories. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a 19th-Century artistic movement based in England, gorgeously detailed their deliberately complex compositions, showing us each unique tree of the narrative forest in its own light, shade, and texture. The effect stuns the viewer. In Sir John Everett Millais’ painting Ophelia (c. 1852, part of the permanent collection of the Tate Britain),[vi] the exquisite detail lavished on every lily, leaf, and flower causes the viewer to forget the larger narrative significance of Ophelia floating down the river. We see a suicide, but we do not feel grieved at the sight of a life cut short. Combined with her unpained, beatific facial expression, Ophelia deliberately focuses our attention away from the larger narrative context, despite the decision to anchor the painting in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Auerbach’s analysis, written for the Odyssey, could easily be transposed onto Ophelia: “The broadly narrated, charming, and subtly fashioned story… with all its elegance and self-sufficiency, its wealth of idyllic pictures, seeks to… make him forget what had just taken place.”[vii] Since I have linked the Odyssey with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the Akeidah, too, should be able to be linked to a style of painting that uses the blurring of detail to tell a story.
The blurred lines and the suppression of detail in an Impressionistic painting, in which aspects of the piece blend together, creates a united work, telling a story without distracting details. For example, Joseph Turner’s Whalers (1845, now in the Wolfe collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art),[viii] focuses the viewer on the elemental power of the ocean and the whale. To depict the hunt with every wooden plank’s grain and every bubble in the sea would take away from the focus on natural forces, in the same way that a discursion on Isaac’s hair color would disrupt the narrative tension of the Akeidah. For an artist, visual or lyrical, concealing and revealing are two sides of the same coin.
Samuel Hirzenberg’s oil painting, Miriam’s Song, (from the collections of the Yeshiva University Museum) uses a palate somewhat similar to Turner’s Whalers, but restrains the use of detail to accomplish a very different goal. In the center, set against a dazzling white background, a thin arm triumphantly holds up a tambourine. This identifies the woman as the biblical Miriam; “Then Miriam the prophet, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women followed her, with timbrels and dancing” (Exodus 15:20, NIV). Perhaps already hinted to by its warm, earthy tones, Miriam’s Song emphasizes both the humans depicted and their display of human emotions. The background was deliberately blurred to focus our attention on the more sharply defined humans. The artist could have chosen to show in great detail all of their clothing and jewelry, or to show the sea whipped into a fury. Instead, we see only a few people, and only enough of them to fit into the focus of the very human salvation. Outstretched arms in worship or adoration, a few figures bow on their hands and knees, and more join in Miriam’s song. The figures are clothed like Hebrews who left Egypt, but Hirzenberg lavishes only just enough detail to set the scene. The Impressionistic painting style once again prevents the trees from obscuring the forest.
Reuven Rubin’s oil painting, The Flute Player, uses an even brighter palette than Miriam’s Song, the warm pinks and reds balancing with the cooler blues and purples, and the background is even less defined. There is no solid suggestion that anything independent of the flute player exists, the “background” a shadowy aura surrounding and reflecting the central figure. We see energy coming from the bright clothing and joyous features of the flutist, the clearly defined, textured, and lined face and flute dissolving into the misty, ethereal light. The motion and mystery are created by the deliberate decision not to paint in a photorealistic style.
We continue to see the effect of an Impressionistic style to emphasize certain elements in Wilhelm Wachtel’s oil painting, David Playing for King Saul. The heart of the painting is the contrast between the tired old man, Saul, and the boyishly youthful David. The musical harp in David’s hands, and the royal scepter in Saul’s, serve to identify the figures, and to establish the dramatic tension between the two. Saul’s eyes look into ours, perhaps knowing, like us, that the boy will one day take his throne. Saul wears a royal purple vest, but David is surrounded by a field of red, and Saul’s arm seems to be holding the blue away. When his arm grows weak, the red and blue will mix, and a new royal purple will emerge. If Wachtel had adopted a more detailed, realistic style, it would have created an additional level of artistic interpretation, which would have necessarily distracted us from the dramatic human tension underlying the painting. The smoky, imperfect lens of the Impressionistic style, wielded by skilled artists, can paradoxically allow us to see more clearly. Good painting – and good narrative – does not always have to be photographic.
Joshua is a junior majoring in Chemistry at YC.
[i] Diane Kelder, The Great Book of French Impressionism, (Abbeville Press Publishers, New York, 1980, Second Abbeville Edition), 125.
[ii] Erich Auerbach, “Odysseus’s Scar,” in Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, trans. Willard R. Trask. (Princeton: Doubleday Anchor, 1953, repr. 1974) available at: www.westmont.edu.
[iii] Auerbach, “Odysseus’ Scar,” Mimesis.
[viii] available at: www.metmuseum.org