The Arts: Equality in the Living Room
Meet 14 fascinating Jewish women whose tastes and philosophies influenced the leading art and political figures of their times.
A woman’s home has long been recognized as her sphere of power. But from the late 18th century into the 20th, some Jewish women extended their influence beyond the private domain, turning their drawing rooms into salons that shaped culture and politics.
Their guests ranged from Felix Mendelssohn, Marcel Proust and Oscar Wilde to Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp and Greta Garbo. Despite their remarkable roles in fostering celebrity careers, promoting new cultural movements and advancing early feminism and social change, the names of the salonieres themselves are largely unfamiliar to most Americans today.
A new exhibit at The Jewish Museum of New York, “The Power of Conversation: Jewish Women and Their Salons,” hopes to write them back into history. Portraits, letters, manuscripts, music scores, political treatises, sculptures, paintings, poems, plays, novels, photographs, furniture, fashion designs, short films—197 objects in all—open the doors of 14 salons in Europe and America to visitors. Curated by Emily Bilski and Emily Braun, the exhibit runs through July 10, then travels to the McMullen Museum of Art at Boston College from August 22 to December 4. Through intensive ground-breaking research, Bilski and Braun were able to reconstruct the women’s lives, each one rich enough to have warranted solo exhibits.
We take for granted the notion of an egalitarian society, that all people can come and mix together,” notes Bilski. “That was not always the case. The salons…overcame the barriers of gender, religion and nationality. It was a tremendously important institution for the making of the modern world.”
Though not all salons were as influential as those featured in the exhibit, they were vital for women in terms of self-identity, sociability and education, says Braun. “[The salons] enabled women to make their mark on the world…. Before there were universities, women’s suffrage, concert halls…there were the salons.”
As the exhibit’s title implies, conversation was a goal in itself. “The common ground was language,” says Braun. Because most young Jewish women were not educated in traditional Jewish texts, they were often the first to learn foreign languages and music. “Through conversation, they could liberate themselves, break stereotypes and exchange ideas,” she explains. Along with political and social emancipation, the rise of movies, television and radio led to the demise of the salon.
The exhibit opens with a legendary name: American-born early-20th-century author Gertrude Stein, who abandoned medical school to join her brother Leo in Paris. Their high-ceilinged salon at 27 rue de Fleurus became a virtual museum of avant-garde art, attracting critics, writers and artists, most notably rivals Picasso and Henri Matisse. Stein used the salon as a platform for her own career, too, writing about guests and talking with people to help get her work published.
To re-create the salon atmosphere, portraits of guests hang in a circle from the ceiling in each room. A 50-minute audio accompaniment, narrated by actress Isabella Rosselini, allows visitors to listen in on the guests and their hosts, played by various actors.
In a selection from The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, written by Stein, she writes about herself as though in the voice of Toklas, Stein’s lifelong companion: “Gertrude Stein understands very well the basis of creation and therefore her advice and criticism is invaluable to her friends.”
From Stein’s salon, the exhibit moves back in time to the first Jewish saloniere, Berlin’s Henrietta Herz. Her extraordinary beauty and acculturation caused the artist Anna Therbusch to depict her as the pagan goddess Hebe, a diaphanous white gown slipping off her shoulder, a garland of flowers crowning her hair. Herz’s gatherings developed alongside her husband Markus’s private philosophy and science lectures. “No person of importance comes to Berlin without visiting [the Herzes],” wrote theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher in 1798.
In Vienna, Rahel Levin Varnhagen used conversation, dialogue and linguistic originality—captured in the thousands of letters she penned—as tools to become what Bilski calls a “model of the modern intellectual Jewish woman.” Her father was a banker and jewelry merchant who entertained business associates in his home; Rahel Levin continued the open houses after his death and later married author and diplomat Karl August Varnhagen. Unlike Henrietta Herz, she was neither beautiful nor wealthy, but her acumen caused the 29-year-old poet Heinrich Heine to declare in July 1826, “I confess that no one knows and understands me as deeply as does Frau von Varnhagen. She need only know that I am alive in order to know what I feel and think…. I shall always have written on my collar: I belong to Madame Varnhagen.”
The salons encouraged the permeation of boundaries and, as such, were vehicles for assimilation. However, points out Braun, “the snake of anti-Semitism was always lurking.”
Though some of the early salonieres, such as Varnhagen, horrified the Jewish community by mingling with non-Jewish men and embracing Christianity, later generations combined the strands of their identities more comfortably, says Bilski. Sisters Fanny von Arnstein and Cäcelie von Eskeles, who welcomed Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven to their successful musical soirées in Vienna, were also Jewish philanthropists. Paradoxically, the salon was such a powerful tool for cultural transfer that von Arnstein was responsible for introducing the German Protestant custom of the Christmas tree into Catholic Vienna in 1814.
The music salon thrived in Berlin under amalie Beer and Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel. Beer, daughter of the richest Jew in Berlin and wife of a wealthy financier, used her fortune not only to host a lavish salon that promoted the careers of her three sons, but also to advance the Reform movement. The Beers transformed a space in their home into a synagogue with an organ, choir, sermons in German and compositions by salon musicians—including non-Jews. The silk and brocade Torah curtain thought to have hung in the Beer Temple, as it was known, rests in the exhibit near a fortepiano from 1838. A portrait by Johann Karl Kretschemar of Beer—doe-eyed and curly-haired in a filmy white dress draped with a blue cape—presides over all.
The granddaughter of philosopher Moses Mendelssohn and sister of composer Felix, Fanny Hensel was a musician in her own right. Her family, however, thought a public career in music unacceptable for her. Fanny and her siblings were baptized to obviate any obstacles Judaism might impose. Restricted by gender, class and family background, the salon was Hensel’s outlet.
An audio clip of her piano trio in D minor, first performed at her salon in April 1847, sets the tone. A diary entry commemorates Niccolo Paganini’s first concert in her salon, on March 9, 1829: “It seemed as though he were plumbing the depths of his soul and yet simultaneously ripping the heart out of the poor violin.”
Fanny’s husband, painter Wilhelm Hensel, drew more than a thousand sketches of guests and performers; several of them are on display.
By the 19th century, salons became scenes of public dramas, personal and political. An escape from an unhappy marriage, Ada Leverson’s literary salon in London “challenged bourgeois norms, including gender roles, sexuality, fashion, taste and morals,” says Bilski. Oscar Wilde, Leverson’s most famous guest, dubbed her the Sphinx after she parodied a poem of his by the same name. Their friendship did not wane after his arrest on charges of homosexuality. Artists in her circle found much material in the salon, too. Author and caricaturist Max Beerbohm depicts Wilde as a gross, triple-chinned, wild-haired hulk, while drawing himself as an elegant dandy.
Another symbiotic relationship—between saloniere Geneviéve Straus and Marcel Proust—flourished in Paris. Proust immortalized her wit in his novels, written in leather notebooks that she had given him. Her marriage to Emile Straus, a lawyer for the Rothschild family, was her second; her first, in 1869, was to composer Georges Bizet (he died in 1875).
Straus was the daughter of Jacques Fromental Halévy, composer of the opera “La Juive.” Judaism played a vital role in her life—but not in the conventional sense. When asked why she never converted, she replied, “I have too little religion to change it.” Yet when the Dreyfus affair split French society, her salon became a center of support for the Jewish army officer falsely accused of treason. While some, like Edgar Degas, left her salon, Proust gathered the signatures of 3,000 artists and writers to bolster Dreyfus’s case.
As cultural impresarios and critics, salonieres spearheaded new art movements, protecting and promoting controversial modernist works.
In Austria, art critic and journalist Berta Zuckerkandl championed the Vienna Secession, an art association that rebelled against the conservatism of Vienna’s official art establishment. Gustav Klimt’s poster for the movement’s first exhibition in 1898 poses Theseus against the Minotaur, symbolizing the struggle for new art. Among the modernist furnishings is a Josef Hoffman chair from the dining hall of the Purkersdorf Sanatorium, a spa-hospital that was one of the greatest design achievements of the Vienna school. Two Auguste Rodin bronzes, of conductor-composer Gustav Mahler and French statesman Georges Clemenceau, depict salon habitués.
Zuckerkandl saw the salon as a means to reform all aspects of life and linked the “lack of taste” in art and design to fashion and social interaction. She even fought to get women out of corsets. “On my divan,” she wrote, “Austria comes alive.”
“The salonieres were the ultimate outsiders on the inside,” says Braun. “There was always a subtle tension between periphery and center.” But, she notes, “to be an outsider allows one critical perspective, pride in one’s difference and a sense of individuality. The women did not permit anyone else to dictate who they were.”
Probably the most ambitious saloniere was Italy’s Margherita Sarfatti: art critic, talent scout, author and, during the 1920’s, de facto head of Fascist policy in fine arts. She was Benito Mussolini’s lover until 1931.
Sarfatti’s “salon” is hung with her art collection: a distorted, futuristicAntigrazioso (said to be of Sarfatti) by Umberto Boccioni; Achille Funi’s airless Motherhood; Medardo Rosso’s sculpture Jewish Boy; and more.
Emily Braun’s favorite saloniere, Milan’s Anna Kuliscioff, exemplifies the political salon. Born in Crimea in 1855, she changed her name from Rozenstein to Kuliscioff, meaning coolie or unskilled laborer in Russian, to express solidarity with the working class.
One of the first women to receive a medical degree, Kuliscioff campaigned to alleviate the appalling conditions of female factory workers, led the Italian Socialist Party for 30 years and was jailed for her anarchist activities. She was confined to her apartment in later years, crippled with rheumatoid arthritis or tuberculosis of the bone. The salon allowed the outside world to come to her; her green velvet divan survives, along with her writings.
In contrast, the sophisticated, rococo salon of New York’s Stettheimer sisters welcomed a lively cross section of European and American bohemians and thinkers between the two world wars. Enlightened discussions mixed with wonderful repast; one dinner menu featured mushroom timbale, soup, halibut and shrimp in mayonnaise aspic with mixed green salad, string beans, meringue filled with fresh strawberries and whipped cream.
Florine Stettheimer, an artist, transformed her gatherings and guests into the subjects of her paintings, exhibited in her salons. Rabbi Steven Wise turns up in the painted tableaux Lake Placid, where the sisters vacationed. In Portrait of Marcel Duchamp, she conjures Duchamp’s female alter ego, Rrose Selavy, an androgynous figure in pink. A triptych of paintings captures the sisters’ personalities: Florine portrays herself as an elongated, black-bereted, dragonfly figure reclining against a red cocoon of a cape. Her sister Carrie, the party planner, is a fashionable social butterfly in white with lacy black wings, antennae protruding from her cloche. Ettie, the conversationalist, lights up the night, a firefly on a red divan; a Christmas tree-cum-burning bush symbolizes the sisters’ assimilation.
The salon served as a haven for those searching for a home—physical, artistic, political or social. Nowhere was this more poignantly true than in the salon of Galician-born Salka Viertel, an actress who arrived in Hollywood in 1928 with her writer-director husband and three sons. Against the backdrop of the Nazis’ ascent to power, she rescued her own family (except for one brother) and welcomed European refugees who called themselves “exiles in paradise.” Into the red door of her sunny, modest Santa Monica home came Bertolt Brecht, Thomas Mann, Arnold Schoenberg, Artur Rubinstein, Charlie Chaplin and Greta Garbo. With Garbo’s encouragement, Viertel reinvented herself as a screenwriter.
A short film, which portrays Viertel’s unpretentious life through photos, film clips and reminiscences, ends the exhibit.
“Perhaps it is not so bad,” Viertel observes in one film, “for a Jew to be an outsider.”