Last month the Cincinnati Skirball Museum unveiled an amazing life-size portrait of Isaac Mayer Wise (1819-1900) that just underwent a major facelift. One year ago, this painting sat in a huge rectangular package safely cushioned along the back wall of one of the museums’ storage rooms. The historic portrait was badly in need of conservation, with many areas of loss. While the painting was undergoing conservation, the museum staff conducted research about the portrait’s history.
From The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, we have Minutes of the Board of Trustees meeting of K.K. Bene Yeshurun of April 29, 1881, which report the following:
“Resolved that the Board of Trustees of K.K. B.Y. takes great pleasure in presenting to the Hebrew Union College the portrait of their beloved Rabbi, Rev. Dr. Isaac M. Wise, believing that the institution, which he has called into existence, and whose President he now is, and has been since its foundation, is the proper custodian of this very valuable and much appreciated memento of his 20th anniversary as Rabbi of our congregation. Resolved that the secretary be requested to communicate this resolution to the Board of Governors of H.U.C. .“
The minutes of the Board of Governors of HUC of May 2, 1881, also from the AJA, state:
“Resolved that the Board of Governors cheerfully accept from the Board of Trustees of the “Kaal Kadosh Benai Yeshurun,” and will always hold in grateful remembrance this praiseworthy gift to our institution, cherishing the honor of becoming the custodian of this highly prized treasure.”
The May 6, 1881 issue of The American Israelite reports:
“The life size oil painting of Isaac M. Wise, made two years ago by Mr. Aubrey for K. K. Benai Yeshurun, has been presented to the Hebrew Union College and placed in its elegantly-furnished office.”
The “elegantly-furnished office” mentioned above was in downtown Cincinnati, before HUC moved up the hill to Clifton Avenue. Documentary photographs from the 1950s and 1960s, from the collection of the AJA, show the portrait first in the faculty lounge, and then in a classroom.
The Cincinnati Art Museum’s 1979 publication The Golden Age: Cincinnati Painters of the Nineteenth Century Represented in the Cincinnati Art Museum tells us that John Aubery was
born in 1810 in Kassel, Germany. He painted in Paris at the court of Louis Philippe, then went to Rome for five years before coming to Cincinnati about 1853. A religious, historical and portrait painter, he was known among the young artists of Cincinnati as “The Ancient Aubery” and was apparently influential and much sought after in Cincinnati. He was the painter to the elite, the rich and famous, the movers and shakers, including such notable Cincinnatians as Thomas Emery, Miles Greenwood, Alphonso Taft, and Marcus Fechheimer.
In 1879, when Wise’s portrait was painted, he was 60 years old. He had served K. K. Bene Yeshurun with distinction for more than 20 years. Four years before this painting, he had founded Hebrew Union College and six years earlier he had founded the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. Thirteen years previous he had dedicated the Plum Street Temple. Wise was certainly a man larger than life, a member of Cincinnati’s elite. The portrait once again graces the Cincinnati campus of HUC, and takes its rightful place among the great treasures of the Skirball Museum.