Gratz Family Portraits Reunited at Philadelphia’s Rosenbach Museum & Library

  • PHILADELPHIA, Pennsylvania
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  • November 09, 2010

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Rebecca Gratz was painted in 1831 by the artist Thomas Sully.

 

The Rosenbach Museum & Library in Philadelphia announces the acquisition of two artistically and culturally significant portraits originally belonging to the Gratz Family, a prominent early American Jewish family who lived in Philadelphia. The paintings include a visually stunning portrait of philanthropist, social activist, and Jewish leader Rebecca Gratz painted in 1831 by Thomas Sully, and a portrait of her brother, Joseph Gratz by George Peter Alexander Healy (not dated). Both portraits were originally painted in Philadelphia, and documentation suggests the portrait of Rebecca Gratz has not been displayed on public view since 1922 and the portrait of Joseph Gratz has never been exhibited. After two generations apart, the portraits of Rebecca and Joseph will join portraits of other Gratz family members in the Rosenbach’s collection, on display to the public beginning TuesdayNovember 9.

These new acquisitions hold special significance to the Rosenbach Museum & Library and the Gratz descendants. The Rosenbach was founded by legendary book dealer A.S.W. Rosenbach and his brother and business partner Philip, whose ancestry connects to the Gratz family, dating back to the eighteenth century. The Rosenbach brothers collected Gratz family items throughout their lifetimes, and the Rosenbach Museum has followed their lead by acquiring a number of additional Gratz items in the past several decades. The Rosenbach now has extremely important holdings of Gratz family portraiture, silver, furniture, ceramics, books and manuscripts related to the family. The portraits of Rebecca and Joseph have been privately held by descendants of the Gratz family since their creation and were purchased by the Rosenbach from Henry Walkem Joseph, a descendant of Sara Gratz Moses Joseph, the niece of Rebecca Gratz.

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“My family and I believe this is the right time for the portraits of Rebecca and Joseph Gratz to return to Philadelphia. The Rosenbach Museum & Library is the only place we considered suitable for them,” said Joseph. “In the historic townhouse of the Rosenbach brothers, Rebecca and Joseph will once again join the paintings of my other ancestors, all hung together as I remember them in my grandfather’s house. That the Rosenbach Museum & Library’s founders are related to the Gratz family makes this event even more gratifying. Our hope is that the public will be able to enjoy and learn about these great portraits and understand the contributions this early American Jewish family made to Philadelphia’s history.”

A portrait of Joseph Gratz by George Peter Alexander Healy (not dated).

“Our founders were dealers with noted passion for building collections, both for themselves and their customers,” said Rosenbach Museum & Library Director Derick Dreher. “They believed in upgrading their collections whenever the quality of an item merited acquisition. In the case of these spectacular portraits of Rebecca Gratz and her brother, the museum was ready to do everything it could to follow the founders’ lead. These are without a doubt the most important acquisitions we have made in many years, and we are extremely grateful to the Joseph family for working with our Curator and Director of Collections, Judith Guston, to help us make it happen.”

“There are only three known portraits of Rebecca Gratz by Thomas Sully,” said Dreher, “and thanks to our supporters, all of them are now in the greater Philadelphia region, where they were created. We’re thrilled to present two of them here at the Rosenbach.”

Dreher added the acquisition would not have been possible without the support of several anonymous donors, and thanked them on behalf of the museum for benefiting area museum-goers with the new works. 

The Legacy of Rebecca Gratz

As the founder and secretary of Philadelphia's earliest women's philanthropic organizations, Rebecca Gratz (1781 – 1869) helped define a new identity for American women. Like other women of her era, Gratz believed that benevolent work was an appropriate extension of women's roles so long as it was done quietly. She devoted her adult life to providing relief for Philadelphia's underprivileged women and children and securing religious, moral and material sustenance for all of Philadelphia's Jews. An observant Jew living in a predominantly Christian nineteenth century culture, Gratz integrated her American experience and Jewish identity to establish the first American Jewish institutions run by women, including the first Hebrew Sunday School and Jewish Orphanage. She believed that women were uniquely responsible for ensuring the preservation of Jewish life in America and worked to create an environment in which women could be fully Jewish and fully American. (Biography courtesy of the Jewish Women’s Archive.) [1]

Joseph Gratz 
(1785 – 1858) was a member of the First City Troop, Philadelphia cavalry during the War of 1812. A merchant by trade, patron of the arts and leader in the Jewish community, Joseph later helped to organize the Philadelphia Institute for the Deaf and Dumb and served as secretary of the Congregation Mikveh Israel, one of the oldest synagogues in the United States.

Reuniting the Gratz Family through portraiture

Two generations ago, the portraits of Rebecca and Joseph hung together alongside three other portraits of the Gratz family in the dining room of Henry Joseph of Montreal, the son of Sara Gratz Moses Joseph and Jacob Henry. Three other portraits in this group are all in the Rosenbach Museum & Library’s collection and include portraits of Michael Gratz (Rebecca’s father) by Thomas Sully, Rebecca and Joseph’s sister, Rachel Gratz Moses and her husband Solomon Moses by Gilbert Stuart. With the addition of the new acquisitions, the portraits of Rebecca and Joseph will now join the portraits of their family members and once again hang together, now on the walls of the museum. 

In addition to portraiture, the Rosenbach holds in its collection many other objects belonging to the Gratz family. Almost all of these objects have come to the Rosenbach from direct descendants of the Gratz family to be cared for by the museum and enjoyed by the public. Gratz objects on view in the Rosenbach Parlor include Rachel Gratz’s desk and bookcase filled with family books, Benjamin Gratz’s washstand, and Joseph Gratz’s grooming box.

The Rosenbach Brothers and the Gratz Family

Museum founders A.S.W. and Phillip Rosenbach have an unusual familial relationship to the Gratz family. Isabella Polock Rosenbach, mother of A.S.W. and Phillip, was the great-great niece of Aaron Levy, a business associate of Michael Gratz, Rebecca’s father. Levy and his wife had no children. To secure an heir, Levy adopted Simon Gratz, one of Michael Gratz’s adult sons and brother to Rebecca. At the time, it was considered appropriate for this purpose to adopt an adult child of a living parent. Later, Rebecca Gratz became the principal of the Sunday School attended by Isabella Polock Rosenbach. For the brothers, Rebecca connected their lives to the time of her father, Michael, and of the American Revolutionary War, whose documents they treasured.

About the Painters

Thomas Sully (1783 – 1872) was a leading American portraitist during the 19th century. He was born in England and immigrated to the United States as a child. He moved to Philadelphia in 1806, where he resided for the remainder of his life. Sully had a prolific and successful career, painting an estimated 2,000 portraits throughout his lifetime. He painted some of the most famous American statesmen and heroes of his day, as well as prominent Europeans including portraits of Queen Victoria, John Quincy Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Marquis de Lafayette. One of his most famous paintings is the historical piece, The Passage of the Delaware, which depicts George Washington’s crossing of the Delaware River during the American Revolutionary War.

In 1831, Sully painted three stylistically different portraits of Rebecca Gratz, who was then around 50 years old. Two of the three paintings by Sully are now in collection of the Rosenbach Museum & Library – the new acquisition depicts Rebecca with grace and poise; the second portrait, which features Rebecca with a more serious countenance, is now on loan to the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia in anticipation of its grand reopening in November 2010, together with numerous other Gratz objects from the Rosenbach collections. The third Sully portrait of Rebecca Gratz features her in a turban and is in the collection of the Delaware Museum of Art. The Rosenbach is also home to several other Thomas Sully paintings including a 1833 portrait of the actress and author Fanny Kemble, whom Rebecca knew, and an 1828 painting Sully described as “child on the sea side” along with a related study.

George Peter Alexander Healy (1813 – 1894), is an American portrait and historical painter, born in Boston, Massachusetts. In his lifetime, he painted many portraits of eminent men. Among his principal works are portraits of Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, Arnold Henry Guyot, William H. Seward, Louis Philippe, and the presidents of the United States from John Quincy Adams to Ulysses Grant, a series commissioned by the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

About the Rosenbach

The Rosenbach Museum & Library seeks to inspire curiosity, inquiry and creativity by engaging broad audiences in exhibitions, programs and research based on its remarkable and expanding collections. The museum was founded by legendary book dealer A.S.W. Rosenbach and his brother and business partner Philip. With an outstanding collection of rare books, manuscripts, furniture and art, the Rosenbach is a museum and world-renowned research library, set within two historic 1865 townhouses, that reflects an age when great collectors lived among their treasures.

The Rosenbach is located at 2008-2010 Delancey Place in Philadelphia and is open Tuesday through Sunday. Admission is $10 for adults, $8 for seniors, $5 for students and free for children under 5. For more information, please call (215) 732-1600 or visit www.rosenbach.org.

 

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