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Portrait of Maimonides as conceived by the American artist, Ben Shahn (1898-1969) in 1965.
This brush drawing together with Rex on the facing page were prepared in 1965 for the Spiral Press edition of Ecclesiastes, or the Preacher and were produced as woodcuts by Shahn's friend, the printmaker Stefan Martin. It is a reworking of a previous portrait of Maimonides done by the painter in 1954. Note the rather stern and even angry look on Maimonides' face. Shahn's love of letters is manifested in the calligraphy above the portrait that forms the first verse of the Book of Ecclesiastes: "The words of Kohelet son of David king in Jerusalem. Vanity of vanities, says Kohelet, vanity of vanities; all is vanity." In the portrait Shahn portrays Maimonides as an angry prophet who finds that everything in the world is vanity or as it is variously translated, futility. The starkness of the calligraphy enhances the negativity of Maimonides' facial expression. Compare it to the portrait on the facing page where the king (Maimonides) has a look of calm resignation and perhaps even acceptance of an imperfect world. The calligraphy in this portrait is more stately and traditional and is framed by a book.

Art and Architecture Library

 

Portrait of Maimonides as conceived by Ben Shahn (1898-1969) in 1954
Maimonides served as a source of inspiration for the secular artist, Ben Shahn, who returned to Jewish themes in his work after World War II. Maimonides is shown here with one arm raised and the other holding a book in which is written a statement attributed to the sage that says "teach thy tongue to say I do not know and thou shalt progress." This 1954 portrait precedes by eleven years the artist's double vision of Maimonides in 1965. Notice his use of calligraphy in this portrait and the lower case "i" in the quote which is otherwise in upper case characters. Also, notice the similarities and differences between this portrait and the two others he did in 1965.

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