Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Western Wall in 1898, as painted by Henry Ossawa Tanner

Henry Ossawa Tanner, "The Wailing Wall", ca. 1898
Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937) was an African American artist (born in Pittsburgh), who spent most of his artistic career in Paris, where he was freed of the anti-Black racism of the United States and was able to pursue his art without constantly being insulted and mistreated. He studied with the painter Thomas Eakins at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts from 1879-1885, and then in 1891 he went to Paris and spent the rest of his life there.
He visited Palestine twice in 1897 (for six weeks) and in 1898 (for six months). As a result of his visit, in addition to many other biblical scenes, he painted Jews praying at the Western Wall, both men and women. Notice that there's no mehitza (screen to divide men and women at prayer), and that there is a row of women standing right in front of the Kotel, all wearing colorful scarves.
In "Mutual Reflections: Jews and Blacks in American Art," Milly Heyd writes that Tanner
depicted the  site as symbolizing the destruction and hoped for revival of the old Temple, an image that became a visual icon for a specific national struggle, constantly repeated by artists in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Tanner painted the wall and worshipers with great empathy and an emphasis on the group as well as on the individual: "Nor do I forget the deep pathos of 'Jews' Wailing Place' - those tremendous foundation stones of that glorious temple that stood upon Mount Moriah, worn smooth by the loving touch of tearful and devout worshippers from all over the world, under the scornful gaze of the to-day Turkish conqueror."
This painting is on display at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum.

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