Max Weber’s turn to painting Jewish subjects as he approached his
fourth decade undoubtedly resulted from numerous factors that
coalesced after the deaths of his parents at the end of World War I.
Although Judaic themes never formed the majority of his creative
output, they numbered among his major innovations. Weber combined
Jewish subjects with a modern aesthetic that was especially
appreciated by American Jews as a reminder of their cultural roots.
1919 Weber painted Sabbath, a scene of two Chassidic men and
their wives that reflects Weber’s inspiration from Cubism and the
figural distortions of El Greco. Thus the painting is an innovative
modern interpretation of a theme featuring Jewish characters who
adhere to ancient tradition.
Weber wrote “to see an art work casually or en
passant is a very pleasant experience: but to come in touch with the
vision, the spirit of its maker, is seeing in participation and then
it is not a gratification but an exultation.”
Weber used to love to visit the Ghetto
in lower Manhattan and sketch. He saw many of the stereotypical
scenes one would expect to find there: the pushcart sellers, the
workers who toiled in the sweatshops, old Jewish men dressed in
their traditional garb.
Throughout the twenties and thirties Weber painted numerous
portraits of rabbis, the spiritual leaders of the Jewish community
and the symbol of Jewish heritage.
of Weber’s famed series of rabbis is called The Talmudists, a
painting of a group of men at a table gesticulating about the
religious texts that they peruse. At the back of the painting is the
image of an ark, repository for the sacred Torah, thus placing the
scene in a synagogue. Here the bearded men reflect the ancient
tradition of the religion as a reminder for contemporary Jews of
their cultural past as it is continued into the present.
Weber’s inspiration for The Talmudists was recorded in the
1935 article, Max Weber: Hasidic Painter, in Judaism,
a quarterly journal published by the American Jewish Congress:
"I was prompted to paint this picture after a pilgrimage to one of
the oldest synagogues of New York's East Side. I find a living
spiritual beauty emanates from, and over and about a group of
patriarchal types when they congregate in search of wisdom in the
teaching of the great Talmudists of the past. The discussion of the
Talmud is at times impassioned, inspired, ecstatic, and at other
moments serene and contemplative…to witness a group of such elders
bent on and intent upon nothing but the eternal quest and
interpretation of the ethical, significant, and religious content of
the great Jewish legacy--the Torah--is for me an unforgettable