Old Masters

Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur

Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur
  • Maurycy Gottlieb 1856, Drohobycz – 1879, Krakow
  • Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur
  • 1878
  • Oil on canvas
  • 245x192cm
  • Gift of Sidney Lamon, New York, 1955

This monumental work was painted by Maurycy Gottlieb when he was only 22 years old, a year before his death. Most of the 20 figures depicted here represent people close to the artist, including Laura, his fiancée at the time, as well as his parents and other relatives. The scene is the interior of the synagogue of his home town of Drohobycz. Three self-portraits of Gottlieb appear among the members of the congregation in their holiday finery. They represent the artist at different stages in his life: in the center of the composition he is depicted as a young man, standing pensively, his head leaning on his hand; on the lower left, as a young child, standing next to an open prayer book; and on the right as a youth, standing and staring over a prayer book. Laura appears twice in the women’s gallery above: to the left of a column, standing upright with a closed prayer book in hand, and to the right of the same column, leaning over and whispering to her mother.

The mantle of the Torah scroll is inscribed with a Hebrew dedication: “... donated in memory of ... R. Moshe [Maurycy’s Hebrew name] Gottlieb, the righteous of blessed memory.” After being rebuked by his father for referring to himself as dead, the artist erased the inscription, but later painted it in again. His friend, the author Nathan Samueli, wrote that Gottlieb painted the picture “not with paint, but with his heart’s blood,” while pondering the thought that he himself might soon also be among the dead. A year later, two weeks after Laura’s wedding to another man, Gottlieb died after a short illness. He apparently died in broken-hearted anguish, either of natural causes, or – as some believed – by committing suicide. The idea of taking his own life was evidently much on his mind, and was mentioned in the notebooks he kept. In her own diary, Laura claimed that Gottlieb died “a lover’s death” because of her.

The application of coats of glazed (semi-transparent) paint, impasto (wide, three-dimensional brushstrokes), and patterns “chiseled” into the paint, as seen, for instance, in the silver decorations on the men’s prayer shawls, create an especially rich picture surface.


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