The Arty Semite

Jewish Colonial Americans in All Their Glory

By Jenna Weissman Joselit

  • Print
  • Share Share

Crossposted From Under the Fig Tree

‘Moses Raphael Levy’ by Gerardus Duyckinck

Two friends of mine, ardent champions of all things cultural, were en route to Los Angeles the other day when they decided to stop off in Bentonville, Arkansas, to see the brand new Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

Given all the advance publicity the museum received, they knew they were in for a treat. The richness of the museum’s holdings, the affability of its setting, the imaginative architecture designed by Moshe Safdie — everything they had read about the institution suggested there would be much to please the eye and delight the senses.

What my friends did not anticipate was meeting up with the Levys and the Franks, a prosperous colonial American Jewish family. But there they were, in all their 18th-century glory: six portraits, one after the other, of the paterfamilias Moses Levy, his daughter, Abigail, son-in-law Jacob Franks and several of their children. You can’t miss them; these oil paintings, the handiwork of Gerardus Duyckinck, are front and center as you enter the museum’s very first gallery.

Once upon a time, these portraits proudly hung in the home of the extended Levy-Frank family and their descendants: proof positive of the beneficence and bounty of America. Somewhere along the line, they became the property of the American Jewish Historical Society which, now and then, put them on display or lent them out to other institutions.

I remember seeing the portraits in the late 1990s at The Jewish Museum in New York where they were the subject of an incisive exhibition called “Facing the New World.” The gentle swell of Moses Levy’s stomach and the slight, insouciant tilt of Abigail Levy Frank’s head caught my eye at the time and has stayed with me ever since.

In the years that followed, the portraits all but disappeared from view, let alone American Jewry’s consciousness, until 2006 when news of their purchase by the Crystal Bridges Museum became public knowledge and a bit of a scandal, to boot.

From what my friends tell me, the Levys and the Franks have found a good home. I’m glad of it. Mindful of the trajectory that took the family from Germany and Britain to the West Indies, New York and Philadelphia — and now to Arkansas — I suspect they would be glad of it, too.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Gerardus Duyckinck, From Under the Fig Tree, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Jenna Weissman Joselit

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • From kosher wine to Ecstasy, presenting some of our best bootlegs:
  • Sara Kramer is not the first New Yorker to feel the alluring pull of the West Coast — but she might be the first heading there with Turkish Urfa pepper and za’atar in her suitcase.
  • About 1 in 40 American Jews will get pancreatic cancer (Ruth Bader Ginsberg is one of the few survivors).
  • At which grade level should classroom discussions include topics like the death of civilians kidnapping of young Israelis and sirens warning of incoming rockets?
  • Wanted: Met Council CEO.
  • “Look, on the one hand, I understand him,” says Rivka Ben-Pazi, a niece of Elchanan Hameiri, the boy that Henk Zanoli saved. “He had a family tragedy.” But on the other hand, she said, “I think he was wrong.” What do you think?
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • Why "Be fruitful and multiply" isn't as simple as it seems:
  • William Schabas may be the least of Israel's problems.
  • You've heard of the #IceBucketChallenge, but Forward publisher Sam Norich has something better: a #SoupBucketChallenge (complete with matzo balls!) Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman & David Remnick, you have 24 hours!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.