If you grew up Jewish in the United States, your grandparents — or your best friend’s grandparents — probably owned either a copy of Arthur Szyk’s Passover Haggadah, his “Visual History of Israel,” a framed “Proclamation of the Establishment of the State of Israel,” or perhaps all three.
What your grandparents probably didn’t know is those popular works barely scratch the surface of Szyk’s Jewish art. In addition to The Haggadah, he illustrated The Book of Job, The Book of Ruth, Song of Songs , two different editions of Megillat Esther, The Ten Commandments, Pathways Through the Bible and more — quite impressive for someone who rarely attended synagogue.
Religious or not, Arthur Szyk was fiercely proud of his Jewish heritage. As a child his favorite stories were those of biblical heroes like Moses and King David. When he was a young man, Szyk and a group of fellow Polish-Jewish artists and writers traveled to Palestine. The experience only confirmed the artist’s commitment to his people and to the establishment of a Jewish homeland in the Land of Israel.
Yet, rather than gearing his work for an exclusively Jewish audience, Szyk brought aspects of his heritage into the larger world. In the 1920s, hoping to counter rising anti-Semitism in Europe, he illuminated an elaborate portfolio work celebrating Jewish contributions to Poland over the centuries (the Statute of Kalisz, published in 1932). In the 1930s he created a playing card design featuring the kings and queens of ancient Israel. His beautiful Haggadah — which, with its Zionist and anti-Nazi themes, is a visual commentary on political events of the 1930s — was dedicated to the King of England, the head of the Anglican Church.
During World War II, Szyk’s heart and talents were fully devoted to the rescue of European Jewry. After the war came to a close, he refocused his efforts to advocate for the creation of the State of Israel. (Please see the sections “Szyk & WWII” and “Szyk & Israel” for detailed information.) In her memoirs, Szyk’s wife Julia said the day Israel’s independence was declared, Szyk wept and immediately began work on the oversize “Proclamation of the Establishment of the State of Israel.” He completed the “Visual History of Israel” that same year, 1948, as well as a series of six paintings of Jewish holidays, which were published as lithographs. Near the end of his life, he even painted portraits of Jewish scholars such as Abravanel, Baruch de Spinoza, and Maimonides (Rambam).
Szyk saw his own accomplishments as an outgrowth of his love and devotion to his people. As he wrote in the final page of his Haggadah, “I am but a Jew praying in art, and if I have succeeded in any measure, if I have gained the power of reception among the elite of the world, I owe it all to the teachings, traditions, and eternal virtues of my people.”