On July 17, 1879, the Polish-Jewish painter Maurycy Gottlieb died, at the age of 23. Despite his premature death, Gottlieb left behind a large body of work, and a reputation both as a national artist in Poland, and internationally as a painter of Jewish subjects.
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Maurycy Gottlieb was born in February 1856 in Drohobycz, today part of Ukraine, the small Galician city with a large and creative Jewish population. (Drohobycz was also the home of the writer Bruno Schulz, who was killed there during the Nazi occupation in 1942.) He was one of 11 children born to Isaac and Fanya (nee Tigerman) Gottlieb. Isaac had been a clothing merchant before moving into petroleum-refining, after oil was found in the region. Isaac was a worldly man, but an observant Jew, a believer in the values of the Enlightenment who offered his 11 children a liberal, German-language education and a traditional lifestyle.
Maurycy was apparently a mediocre student at the town’s gymnasium, but distinguished for his artistic talent. In his 2002 biography of Gottlieb, the historian Ezra Mendelsohn quotes a short memoir written by the artist, in which he describes “the struggle between the desire to draw and my religious feelings” that he felt on Yom Kippur – the holy day that was the subject of his most well-known painting, “Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur,” which is in the collection of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art -- when, as Gottlieb noted, “all work is forbidden.” Non-Jewish classmates would invite him to their homes, where he would make drawings for their entertainment, and “I was treated to sausages and other food that Jewish law forbids.”
By age 15, Maurycy was enrolled at the Vienna Art Academy, and three years later, was studying with the Polish painter Jan Matejko, at Krakow’s School of Fine Arts. He returned angrily to Vienna after less than a year, in the wake of the anti-Semitic treatment he was subjected to by his fellow pupils.
Over the next few years, Gottlieb moved between Vienna and Munich, where, in 1876, he received a gold medal from the Munich Academy for his canvas of “Shylock and Jessica.” His model for the face of Jessica, the daughter of the Jewish moneylender from “The Merchant of Venice,” was Laura Rosenfeld, the daughter of a prominent Jewish merchant from Vienna. Gottlieb was in love with Laura, and proposed marriage to her, but she turned him down.
In the autumn of 1878, Gottlieb was working in Rome. There, at a dinner party, he met his former teacher Jan Matejko, who urged him, as one of his finest students, to return to Krakow. (Mendelsohn describes Matejko, one of the great national artists of Poland, as both profoundly anti-Semitic but also highly respectful of Gottlieb, and the teacher of other Jewish painters as well.)
Gottlieb did return to Krakow, and there he began work on what he intended to be a series of monumental paintings on the history of Polish Jewry. In the interim he became romantically involved with Lola Rosengarten, to whom he became engaged. When word reached Gottlieb of Laura Rosenfeld’s marriage to a Berlin banker, however, he became distraught and, apparently intentionally, exposed himself to bad weather until he became ill. The complications of the cold and sore threat he contracted led to his death, in Krakow, on July 17, 1879.
Until the 1990s, it was thought in the West that Maurycy Gottlieb had painted only a small number of works. After the fall of the Soviet bloc, however, lists of holdings from Eastern Europe, in particular from Poland, emerged, and today the number of extant works by Gottlieb amounts to about 300 paintings and sketches. Many of them are on Jewish themes; these include several portraits of Jesus, in which at least one of them he is depicted preaching in a synagogue, in a tallit (prayer shawl).
In an article on the Yivo Institute website, curator Nehama Guralnik, discussing Gottlieb’s legacy, notes that his art “reflected his support for the ideals of Jewish integration into Polish culture,” and that following Gottlieb’s death, he was claimed as one of their own by “Jewish assimilationists, Polish advocates of Jewish acculturation, and representatives of the new Jewish nationalism” alike.