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!
  • Are Michelangelo's paintings anti-Semitic? Meet the Jews of the Sistine Chapel: http://jd.fo/i4UDl
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • Was Israel really shocked to find there are networks of tunnels under Gaza?
  • “Going to Berlin, I had a sense of something waiting there for me. I was searching for something and felt I could unlock it by walking the streets where my grandfather walked and where my father grew up.”
  • How can 3 contradictory theories of Yiddish co-exist? Share this with Yiddish lovers!
  • "We must answer truthfully: Has a drop of all this bloodshed really helped bring us to a better place?”
  • "There are two roads. We have repeatedly taken the one more traveled, and that has made all the difference." Dahlia Scheindlin looks at the roots of Israel's conflict with Gaza.
  • Shalom, Cooperstown! Cooperstown Jewish mayor Jeff Katz and Jeff Idelson, director of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, work together to oversee induction weekend.
  • A boost for morale, if not morals.
  • Mixed marriages in Israel are tough in times of peace. So, how do you maintain a family bubble in the midst of war? http://jd.fo/f4VeG
  • Despite the escalating violence in Israel, more and more Jews are leaving their homes in Alaska to make aliyah: http://jd.fo/g4SIa
  • The Workmen's Circle is hosting New York’s first Jewish street fair on Sunday. Bring on the nouveau deli!
  • Novelist Sayed Kashua finds it hard to write about the heartbreak of Gaza from the plush confines of Debra Winger's Manhattan pad. Tough to argue with that, whichever side of the conflict you are on.
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • 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.