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The Talmudists

Max Weber (American, b. Russia, 1881-1961)

The Talmudists, 1934

  • Oil on canvas
  • 50 1/8 x 34 in. (127.3 x 86.4 cm)
  • The Jewish Museum, New York
  • Gift of Mrs. Nathan Miller, JM 51-48

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The Talmudists

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The Talmudists

There are nine characters in The Talmudists, all engaged in the study of the Talmud.

The four characters reading silently from their books give the foreground a calm quality. The middle-ground is energized by the characters engaged in lively discussion and gesturing in an exaggerated manner. The background returns to calm, with two figures facing away from the viewer. Rooms can be seen in the far background, beyond two archways. On the right is a staircase leading upward. On the left is a form that appears to be an ark for a Torah.

Two of the men in the middle-ground are wide-eyed while the other seven characters cast their gazes downward at the text.

The quietly focused figures in the foreground create an almost-perfect symmetry, with the study partners on the right and left appearing almost as mirror images of each other. This symmetry lends the composition a sense of balance. The focal point lies within this group of figures—the viewer’s eyes rest on the orange book, with its cover facing outward at the center of the canvas.

The composition is tightly cropped on both sides—there is barely any space between the chairs and the archways and the edges of the canvas.

The empty space at the end of the table (the nearest part of the pictorial space) almost invites the viewer (and a partner) to pull up a chair and join in the study session.

Weber’s technique vies with his subject matter for the viewer’s attention. He has employed a very textural application of the oil paint. Sometimes he uses paint so sparingly that the weave of the canvas can be seen through it. Sometimes, the paint is quite thick. His brushstrokes are often sketchy, loose, gestural, and expressive. Some areas of the canvas are impastoed—they have raised accumulations of paint.

Weber encourages the viewer’s eyes to move around the canvas by repeating circular and ovular forms throughout (the doorways, the yarmulkes, the hats, the chair back). The blurry, black contours that bound many of the figures and forms serve to unite the composition.

Overall, the work may seem dark and shadowy, but there are accents of teal, orange, burnt umbers, blues, reds, and plums. Weber creates a visual balance by making these colors reappear in various parts of the canvas.

In terms of its style, The Talmudists reveals Weber's admiration of the Greek painter El Greco (1541–1614). Weber appropriates the gestures of El Greco's ecstatic Christian figures and saints for the excited gesticulation of the Jewish scholars. The rendering of space, especially the titled plane of the table, is reminiscent of a pictorial device used by the 19th-century French artist Paul Cézanne. By titling the table top, Weber simultaneously reveals the open books and compresses the pictorial space. He further compresses the space by placing his figures in close proximity to one another, filling the room with their forms and gestures. The intimate grouping of the figures underscores the scholars’ mutual devotion to the study of Jewish text and their shared heritage.

Sources:

Baigell, Matthew. “Max Weber’s Jewish Paintings.” American Jewish History, vol. 88, no. 3 (September 2000): 341–60.

Berger, Maurice, and Joan Rosenbaum, eds. Masterworks of The Jewish Museum. New York: The Jewish Museum; New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004, p 21.