Painter, the most prominent representative of Jewish culture in Poland of the second half of the 19th century. Born in 1856 in Drohobych, died in 1879 in Kraków.
Painter, the most prominent representative of Jewish culture in Poland of the second half of the 19th century.
He came from a wealthy Jewish family. Maurycy’s three brothers also painted, the most gifted of them being Leopold. Ever since their early years, they were brought up with deep respect for religion and Judaist tradition, and at the same time in the atmosphere of tolerance, openness to the worldview and culture of the non-Jewish members of society. Maurycy had a passion for drawing already as a child, while middle school studies proved hard for him (he changed schools in Drohobych and Lviv three times). From 1869 on, he studied in the studio of the Lviv painter Michał Godlewski. At the same time, he independently prepared for an exam allowing him to commence higher studies.
In 1871-73, he attended the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, under Karl Mayer and Karl von Blaas. At that time, looking at Jan Matejko’s monumental historical paintings for the first time awoke youthful, vigorous feeling of patriotism in Gottlieb, as well as the desire to comprehend the essence of the past relationship between the two nations – Poles and Jews.
In the 1873/74 academic year, he transferred to the Kraków School of Fine Arts in order to study under Matejko. That is when his manifesto painting Self-portrait in Polish Nobleman’s Dress (1874, currently missing). In the light of anti-semitic acts of some of his fellow students (supported by one of the professors), he soon left the Kraków school to continue studies in Vienna, in the master class of Karl Wurzinger. However, in the autumn 1875, only after a few-months in Drohobych, he left for Munich.
He studied at the Academy of Fine Arts there for one year (1875/76), under Karl Piloty and Alexander Wagner. Admiring the paintings in the collection of the Old Pinacotheca, he became influenced by the art of Rembrandt, who often touched on themes and motifs from Jewish culture. After an 1877 exhibition in Lviv and in 1878, at the Warsaw Society for the Encouragement of Fine Arts, his painting Shylock and Jessica (painted as her diploma piece at the Academy), inspired by Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, earned him fame and broad recognition among critics. From late 1876 to January 1878, Gottlieb stayed in Vienna again.
Initially, he studied at Heinrich von Angele’s school adjacent to the Academy; during that time, he received care and financial support from Ignacy Kuranda, leader of the Jewish community in Vienna. At the beginning of 1878, he went to Munich for a few months, as he was commissioned by Bruckmann’s publishing house to create a series of illustrations for an exclusive edition of Gotthold Lessing’s dramatic poem Nathan the Wise.
He spent the summer of 1878 in Drohobych, Truskavets, and Lviv, while in autumn he went to Rome on a scholarship which he received with Kuranda’s help. Over there, he bonded with Henryk Siemiradzki, who took care of the young painter. Enchanted by the Eternal City, he considered settling there permanently. However, when he met Matejko (at an official reception in his honour), Gottlieb’s old sentiments for Polish culture came back. Having been cordially invited by his old teacher, in spring 1879 he arrived in Kraków, in order to paint a monumental series of paintings depicting the history of Jews in Poland under Matejko’s supervision. Gottlieb’s modest artistic legacy became significantly dispersed, with many works going missing or getting destroyed during the Second World War; a dozen of them currently belongs to public and private collections in Israel, as well as to private collections in United States, Chile, and Australia.
In his early years, Gottlieb painted historically-themed works about Poland, which demonstrated a clear impact of Matejko, both ideologically and artistically. A painting that stands out among them is the small-format Sigismund Augustus and Giżanka (ca. 1874), probably inspired by Matejko’s painting Sigismund Augustus and Barbara Radziwiłł. The anti-semitic behavior of his colleagues from the Kraków School of Fine Arts put an end to Gottlieb’s hopes for assimilation and his awareness of the Jewish cultural and national identity had ultimately formed during the Munich era. He then started passionately studying the history, tradition, and literature of his nation, which was reflected in the subject of his works (Jewish Wedding, 1876, Torah Scribe, ca. 1876). Shylock and Jessica (1876, currently missing) became an important ideological confession, as it represented an internal drama of a father struggling with his daughter’s departure to the world of Christianity, in search of personal happiness.
An expression of his spiritual dilemmas may also be found in a self-portrait in which he represented himself as Ahaswer, the biblical king of Persia who took care of Jews, and at the same time made a reference to the archetype of the Wandering Jew (Ahaswer,1876). This portrait in an oriental robe, poignant in its representation of misery and suffering, is close to Rembrandt’s tradition, also in terms of technique. Gottlieb was fascinated by that ungraspable aura of mystery, spirituality, and sorrow surrounding the figures in Rembrandt’s paintings, and he was also able to attain an effect of warm, golden light, which penetrates not only individual parts of composition, but also the painting matter itself – similarly to the master’s works. The soft, mild chiaroscuro apparent in Gottlieb’s paintings from that time, especially in female portraits, and a penchant for rich fabrics and shiny diamonds – were also influenced by the Dutch master.
In Vienna, Gottlieb completed one of his most acclaimed works, which cemented his fame in Europe. It was a painting inspired by Karl Gutzkow’s drama Uriel d'Acosta, which showed Uriel and Judith van Straaten – a couple of lovers caught up in conflicts and religious persecution, whose tragic story became a source of powerful, deeply personal feelings for the young painter. Artistically, this work displays an influence of Hans Makart’s art – which was popular in Vienna at the time – apparent in the carefully thought-out, somewhat theatrical arrangement of the composition, precision of drawing and sophisticated colour palette, as well as in the wealth of perfectly reproduced elements of the outfit, laces, jewels, and decorative props.
When preparing a series of illustrations to Nathan the Wise, Gottlieb also painted two large format oil compositions, representing the scenes Recha Welcoming Her Father and The Rescue of Recha from the Fire (both 1877). In these works, drawing an inspiration from Lessing’s poem, he returned to the problem of religious tolerance and mutual infiltration of various cultures – in this case, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The subtle graphic structure of both canvases, painted in en grisaille technique, maintained in a translucent, golden and grey palette, bestows them with a character of a sophisticated, elegant decorativeness. Moreover, in 1877 Gottlieb painted a series of small, sketched compositions revolving around religious or oriental themes (Cairo Slave Market, The Exile of the Moors from Granada, Odalisque, Joseph and Potiphar's Wife). Many of the protagonists of these paintings, often tinted with subtle eroticism, are women succumbing to strong passions, depicted in the moments of dramatic internal conflicts or deep emotional experiences (Judith with the Head of Holofernes, Salome with the Head of St. John, or the slightly later Salome’s Dance, 1879). Judith with the Head of Holofernes and Salome with the Head of St. John are devoid of narrative descriptiveness – the artist does not illustrate elaborate Biblical themes, but creates spiritual portraits of his protagonists – lyrical, brimming with sorrow, far from the model of a cruel femme fatale triumphing over men, which at the time was popularised in literature and visual art.
Between 1877 and 1878, Gottlieb began preparing a series of monumental works on the life of Jesus Christ, showing his teachings, miracles, and sacrifice, however not in the context of religious painting genre, but historical one, which preserved a meticulous adherence to the Biblical messages, complemented by familiarity with the painter’s contemporary customs, outfits, architecture, and local landscape. Before his death, the artist managed to paint Christ Before His Judges (1877-79) and Christ Preaching at Capernaum (1878-79, both unfinished), while other ideas never went pass the sketch stage (the sketches are currently missing). A painting showing Jews praying during Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement (Jews Praying in the Synagogue, 1878) to an extent complemented that cycle. According to the old and contemporary researchers of Gottlieb’s art, the ideological meaning of those works manifests itself in the painter’s efforts to incorporate the events from the life of Christ into the tradition of the Jewish people, to extract and accentuate the common roots of Judaism and Christianity. Indeed, Christ with a semitic appearance, presented in a Jewish costume, preaching inside a synagogue, seems to be closer to the prophets from the Old Testament than the images of the Son of God and Saviour.
In Gottlieb’s oeuvre, portraiture developed alongside his works concerned with Biblical, historical, and literary themes, bringing him as much fame and recognition. He was one of the first painters to portray wealthy, educated Jews, representing a high intellectual and cultural level. His intimate portraits often expressed a personal, emotional relationship with the painted person. One of Gottlieb’s powerful works was The Portrait of Ignacy Kuranda (1878). Close up of the sixty-something old man catches the viewer’s eye with a dense expression of force, fortitude, and gravity. The raw simplicity of the painting’s technique – the black dress that adds monumentality to the figure, sophisticated background colours, and free method of applying paint which binds the form, perfectly correspond with the air of his personality. Gottlieb had incredible intuition for capturing the mysterious realm of internal experiences of a person, and for bringing out the softness and unpretentious grace of models in the female portraits. The protagonists of his paintings are immersed in silent meditation and filled with unspecified longing. Their eyes are rarely directed at the viewer, but hidden behind shut eyelids or gazing far away, as if towards the internal space of the painting, highlighting the aura of a lyrical pensiveness which surrounds young women (Lady with a Fan, ca. 1877; Portrait of a Woman, 1878; Portrait of the Artist’s Sister Anna, 1878; Portrait of a Young Jewish Woman, 1879). In these portraits, while consciously subduing the means of expression, Gottlieb did not refrain from highlighting the beauty of models with an eye-catching costume or decorative accents of female decorations, such as fans, aigrettes, jewels, and flowers (Portrait of Laura Henschel-Rosenfeld, the Artist's Fiancee, 1877; Sulamith, 1877, Rachel). That is also how he painted his sister Anna – a sophisticated elegance of the renaissance outfit and discrete glow of gold jewellery constitute a perfect frame for the delicate, purebred face of the young woman. Portrait of a Young Jewish Woman, captivating in its impression of a refined charm of a woman deep in thoughts, is more modest in terms of painting techniques and costume details. The incredible simplicity of composition and moderate, sophisticated dark green and black palette highlight the lucent, Rembrandt-like complexion of her face, masterfully modelled with transparent glaze.
Gottlieb’s painting, rooted in Jewish and Polish culture, strongly exposed his romantic nature, perpetual creative anxiety and internal conflict, coming from the need to define his own national identity. As a deeply emotional person, he had very strong feelings about the fatal vulnerability of a man facing the fate and the world, which is why sorrow and melancholy were so apparent in his portraits. At the same time, he was a very sensitive colourist, sensitive to the subtle game of light reflections and harmony of colour tones. The expressive chiaroscuro shades, sophisticated range of softly interfused colour stains highlight the emotional, visionary atmosphere of many of Gottlieb’s works. In some of them, it is possible to notice an announcement of the evolution of his talent towards symbolism, which was interfered by the artist’s premature death at the age of twenty three.
Author: Ewa Micke-Broniarek, National Museumin Warsaw, February 2005, transl. AM, March, 2017