Chaim Gross is well-known for his Jewish subjects, such as the 1968 suite of lithographs The Jewish Holidays. What is perhaps less known is that Gross didn’t begin to incorporate these Jewish themes until the late 1940s, after more than twenty years of sculpting modernist works like the Met’s 1928 East Side Girl. In a way, he had two careers, first as a modern sculptor and then as a Jewish artist.
A major impetus for Gross’s Jewish subjects was his first trip to Israel in June 1949, almost a year after Israel’s declaration of statehood on May 14, 1948. Gross visited Israel during a two-month trip to Europe, his first time back since he emigrated to the U.S. from Eastern Europe in 1921 (for a biographical essay on Gross, see Roberta Tarbell’s informative essay).
Gross recounted later in life the impact of this first trip to Israel:
I visited Israel for the first time back in 1949, Israel at the age of one year…I returned there two years later and then a third time. I cannot begin to tell you what I took from my people, our people there. It was, in a sense, a rebirth for me, a new inspiration of that which has guided me from the time I was a little child.
There are two sketchbooks in our archives with drawings from the first Israel trip that take us along with Gross during his journey. He first went to the port city of Jaffa and then to Gedera; then on to the coastal city of Caesarea, where he made this sketch of an ancient archway with a barbed-wire barrier below:
He then went to Ashkelon and Majdal, followed by Tel Aviv, where he made this sketch of city life:
The drawings in the sketchbook relay that Gross also traveled to Jerusalem, Nazareth, and Haifa, before moving on to Rome, Italy and other Italian cities. To see the entire sketchbook, just contact the Foundation to make an appointment.
Soon after returning from Israel Gross carved this very large 91-inch 1950 sculpture with the biblical subject of Lot’s Wife:
Its expressive elongation seems inspired by Giacometti’s contemporaneous sculptures from the late 1940s. The work is now at the Foundation, along with other later works with biblical subjects such the 1956 Naomi and Ruth and the 1962 Judith.
Gross returned to Israel for a second time in 1951. He stayed for three months to paint a series of 40 watercolors of life in various cities. The watercolors were exhibited at the Jewish Museum in New York from May-July 1953, Gross’s first solo show there. Here’s Gross’s drawing for the exhibition poster:
And here’s an installation shot of the 1953 exhibit from our archives:
After the exhibition, the watercolors were gifted to various institutions, including Brandeis University and Smith College, though one of the watercolors, a scene in Sefad, is currently in the Foundation’s collection:
We’ll hopefully reassemble the entire group digitally at a later date here.