Artwork Title: Uriel Acosta and Spinoza

Uriel Acosta and Spinoza, 1888

Samuel Hirszenberg

Uriel Acosta: Uriel Acosta, freethinking rationalist who became an example among Jews of one martyred by the intolerance of his own religious community.... He is sometimes cited as a forerunner of the renowned philosopher Benedict de Spinoza.... [] Two ridiculous paintings of Spinoza, both from the same hand but 20 years apart. The painting portrays Spinoza as a young boy of no more than ten, sitting on the lap of his mentor Da Costa. The contrast between the two figures could not be starker. Baruch has long, golden curls and soft, cherubic features; he wears an elegant, perfectly tailored mauve-coloured coat over an ivory, wide-collared chemise; and his face, tilted back ever so slightly and turned to the massive tome that sits open on the desk before him, is aglow with a serene rapture. Da Costa, on the other hand, is gaunt, bearded, and brooding; he is dressed all in black, from his large skullcap to his long, shapeless caftan; and his posture is as stiff and tightly coiled (witness the fingers gripping the armrest) as Spinoza’s is relaxed, even languorous. Hirszenberg based this painting on a scene from the last act of Karl Gutzkow’s 1846 play Uriel Acosta, in which a young and happy Baruch walks in a leafy park together with his “uncle” Uriel. The pink flowers resting on the open book on the table in Hirszenberg’s painting have their roots in this episode. As Spinoza collects flowers, Da Costa urges that he “sleep, like flowers, content to enjoy their loveliness,” without embarking, like him, on a path of restless enquiry into the true nature of things that will only lead to ruin. Yet before leaving da Costa, Baruch cannot help but use the flowers for a philosophical analogy, by comparing the fresh ones to the eternal, infinite attribute of Thought, and their faded counterparts to finite modes. (Daniel Schwartz, The First Modern Jew, Princeton, 2012) Uriel Acosta and Spinoza was one of Hirszenberg’s first paintings; his Spinoza and the Rabbis of two decades later is one of his last. [See] No longer a boy in the lap of his heterodox tutor, the Spinoza of this mature work is an excommunicated heretic. Hirszenberg portrays Spinoza, dressed like a Dutchman, walking composedly in the foreground of a cobblestone street, rapt in a book he is reading. To all appearances, he is utterly unperturbed by the scowls and menacing glares of the bearded brood all in black behind him. While one of the men kneels down, perhaps to pick up a stone to throw at Spinoza, the rest simply recoil, packing ever closer together in herdlike fashion, and in so doing underscoring the degree to which Spinoza stands abandoned and alone, apart from the crowd. If Hirszenberg’s earlier opus had hinted at a Jewish counter-tradition of dissent to which Spinoza belonged, here the emphasis was exclusively on rupture. This too, however, was a crucial aspect of the 19th century Spinoza: the “rebel against the past,” the “founder of a new path that our forefathers could not have imagined,” the hero of freedom and solitude. (ibid) []
Uploaded on Feb 1, 2018 by Suzan Hamer

Arthur is a
Digital Museum