Born in Lodz, Poland in 1865, Samuel Hirszenberg was a traditional history painter in the realist tradition, influenced by the Polish masters Jan Matejko (1838–1893) and Maurycy Gotlieb (1856–1879). He entered the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow at the age of 15 and studied there for two years, afterwards completing his training at the Royal Academy of Arts in Munich (1885–1889). Hirszenberg returned to Poland in 1891 and re-settled in Lodz two years later. He went on to become well-known for his monumental paintings depicting the condition of impoverished Jews in Poland, where frequent anti-Semitic pogroms caused many to flee to the West. He exhibited regularly in Paris before moving to Jerusalem in 1907, where he taught at the newly-established Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts until his death in 1908.
Hirszenberg was preoccupied with themes of exile and wandering. His painting, Exile (1904, now lost), was reproduced in the Yiddish magazine Ost und West to great acclaim the following year. However, Sabbath Rest, a later version of an 1890 work of the same title and similar composition in the Museum of Modern Art, Lodz, shows how his interest in this subject pre-dates this composition. In this version, several details have been altered to emphasise the narrative of migration. Three generations are gathered in one room around the bedridden matriarch to keep the Sabbath. Their piety is indicated by the candlesticks on the table and the hanging star-shaped Judenstern lamp, which burns for 24 hours. A young boy leans on his grandfather, his parents seated at the table; the muted palette conveys their poverty, but two older grandchildren by the window are symbolically closer to a brighter future. Their traditional way of life is contrasted with the encroaching industrialization of the Lodz workers’ quarter just glimpsed through the window behind them. The elder grandson reads aloud from a ‘Letter from Argentina’, an alternative title for the painting according to ‘Ruth’ (Hirszenberg’s convert wife) in Ost und West.
The theme of migration is further emphasized by the identification of the sitter in the larger portrait as Baron Maurice de Hirsch, a tireless supporter of Jewish immigration to Argentina, via his Jewish Colonial Organization, established in 1891. The second portrait is thought to be that of the relative who has migrated to Argentina. Hirszenberg’s work influenced a number of later Jewish artists including Marc Chagall, and Alfred Wolmark who specifically referenced Sabbath Rest in his own Sabbath Afternoon, transposing the setting to London’s Jewish East End.
Sabbath Rest is a key painting in the Ben Uri collection, and one of the earliest acquisitions, purchased in 1923 for £143 through subscription and the support, principally, of Moshe Oved . It was the opening exhibit in the first collection display when ‘Ben Uri Gallery and Club’ opened in May 1925 at 68 Great Russell Street, opposite the British Museum. It is one of six works by the artist in the Ben Uri collection.