Last month, on December 14, three carefully detailed renderings of synagogue interiors, the handiwork of Marc Chagall, fetched $2.3 million at Sotheby’s. In the days preceding the auction, much was made of the rarity of these works and of how they stood apart from the artist’s oeuvre, which tilted toward the fantastical.
A great deal of attention was also lavished on how the paintings had come to light: It seems that they were recently consigned to Sotheby’s by the heirs of the collector, who had first purchased them in 1945 from the Gallery of Jewish Art, in New York.
Virtually no account of the paintings’ provenance paid heed to this choice tidbit, but it stopped me dead in my tracks. The Gallery of Jewish Art? In the heart of Midtown Manhattan, on East 30th Street? In 1945, several years before The Jewish Museum first opened its doors on Fifth Avenue? I pride myself on knowing a lot of obscure things about the American Jewish experience, but I had never before stumbled across the Gallery of Jewish Art.
Eager to learn more, I turned to one of my colleagues, Jeannie Rosenfeld, who, prompted by the Sotheby’s auction, had written about Chagall’s synagogue paintings. She was kind enough to share with me a copy of the brochure that had accompanied the inaugural exhibition of the Gallery of Jewish Art, where the “Synagogue Series” of the Vitebsk-born artist was exhibited.
Although the brochure is modest and unassuming, the paintings on display at this “new enterprise of a non-profit character” were anything but. Joseph Israels, Camille Pissarro, Max Liebermann, Jules Pascin and Chaim Soutine joined Chagall. In addition, a “group of ceremonial objects” on loan from the Museum of the Jewish Theological Seminary rounded out the exhibition, whose other lenders included Sholem Asch and Pierre Matisse.
Reviewing the exhibition within the pages of the New York World-Telegram, Emily Genauer expressed both surprise and delight at Chagall’s “comparatively realistic” turn. “No figures float through the air here… there are no two-faced cows, no bears and violins, no lovers lost in ecstasy walking on clouds,” she related. Instead, visitors to the Gallery of Jewish Art encountered a series of “simply, lightly brushed picturizations” that grew out of Chagall’s “affectionate lingering on the rich details of the architecture,” much of which had been destroyed recently by the Nazis.
Aesthetic pleasure, then, wasn’t the only experience to be had at the inaugural exhibition of the Gallery of Jewish Art, Genauer concluded perceptively. “In its own way, this is a war show, too.”