Moses Jacob Ezekiel and His Circle

On view through June 22, 2014

Opening reception: March 20, 2014 - 5:30-8 pm

Moses Jacob Ezekiel, Israel, bronze relief, h. 44 x w. 56 in. 1904. HUC-JIR Skirball Museum Cincinnati.

The next exhibition at the Cincinnati Skirball Museum, located on the campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, 3101 Clifton Avenue, will focus on the work of Moses Jacob Ezekiel (1844-1917). The opening reception took place on March 20 and included a lecture by scholar and writer Peter Nash. The exhibition will run through June 22, 2014.  

In his lecture, Nash described how he became interested in American expatriate artist Moses Ezekiel, and told of his adventures in Rome when he traveled there to find and explore the places in which Ezekiel lived and worked. Nash is the author of the newly published book, The Life and Times of Moses Jacob Ezekiel: American Sculptor, Arcadian Knight, in which he describes Ezekiel as a Sephardic Jew, a homosexual, Confederate soldier, Southern apologist, opponent of slavery, patriot, expatriate and artist of international fame in the fin-de-siècle world of artists and intellectuals. After his lecture, Nash signed copies of his book, which will be for sale at the event.

The intimate exhibition at the Skirball grew out of a recently acquired gift of works by Moses Ezekiel and his circle from the artist's great-nephew Lee Striker, explains Abby Schwartz, the museum’s interim director. These works, mostly on paper but including three oil paintings by members of the artist’s circle and Ezekiel’s sculpting tools, complement the three bronze and marble pieces already in the museum's collection.

Moses Jacob Ezekiel, One corner of my studio, pen and ink drawing on paper, c. 1880, gift of Cecil L. Striker, December, 2013. HUC-JIR Skirball Museum Cincinnati.

“We are delighted to have Peter Nash to discuss his book and describe his journey in words and images into Ezekiel’s world in Rome,” says Schwartz. “Nash is a descendent of the artist, and did much of his research here in Cincinnati. We look forward to welcoming him back to share his insights and give context to the small but choice group of works on view in this spotlight exhibition.”

Ezekiel was born in Richmond, Virginia. He was only in his teens when the Civil War began in 1861 and he enrolled in the Virginia Military Institute, becoming its first Jewish cadet. He fought in the battle of New Market in 1864, and was encouraged by General Robert E. Lee to study art: “I hope you will be an artist, as it seems to me you are cut out for one.” Ezekiel wanted to study in Europe, but due to limited finances he entered the Medical College of Virginia in 1867 to study anatomy. A year later the Ezekiel family left Richmond for Cincinnati, which had developed into a major regional art center by 1865. Ezekiel entered the studio of Thomas Dow Jones and began a disciplined study of sculpture.

In 1869, Ezekiel left Cincinnati for Berlin, where he entered the Royal Academy. Religious subjects, often Jewish, were among Ezekiel’s earliest themes. While in Berlin he sculpted the bas-relief Israel, for which he won the coveted Prix de Rome, the first American artist to do so. A version of Israel is in the Skirball collection and will be featured during the exhibition. In 1899 Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, the leader of American Reform Judaism and founder of Hebrew Union College, posed for Ezekiel. The resulting marble bust is part of the Skirball Museum’s collection and is also on display, along with a bronze of seventeenth century Sephardic Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza, which has been in storage for several years.

Ezekiel soon moved to Rome, his home for more than 40 years. Three European monarchs knighted him and he was a favorite among artists, composers and fellow expatriates. One of Ezekiel’s chief works is the Confederate Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery. When he died in 1917, he left behind a specific request that his body be returned to America and buried at the base of the monument, alongside his comrades-in-arms. 

Peter Nash, author of The Life and Times of Moses Jacob Ezekiel: American Sculptor, Arcadian Knight (2014), shown outside Moses Jacob Ezekiel’s studio in Rome.

Peter Adam Nash is a teacher of literature and writing at an independent school in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He is the author of the recently completed novel Parsimony. His work, The Life and Times of Moses Jacob Ezekiel: American Sculptor, Arcadian Knight, was published by Fairleigh Dickinson University Press in March of this year.