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Henry Mosler, Le Retour

By Dr. Samantha Baskind
Henry Mosler, Le Retour, 1879, oil on canvas, 120 x 102 cm (Musée d'Orsay, Paris)
Tightly rendered in a dark palette, Le Retour by Henry Mosler recounts the oft-told redemption story of the Prodigal Son, a traditional New Testament subject, embraced by artists such as Rembrandt and Murillo. One of the best known parables in the Christian Bible, the Prodigal Son tells of a young man who leaves his family and falls into poverty, but eventually comes home to repent. Mosler relocated the scene to Brittany in northwest France, which was a thriving artist colony at the time due to its picturesque environs. Wearing tattered clothes, the errant son returns home only to find his mother on her deathbed, arriving too late to ask for her forgiveness. Mosler depicts him kneeling in despair at the base of an authentic, intricately carved oak Breton bed and contrasts the anguished son, wearing threadbare clothes and kneeling in dirt, with his mother, who rests peacefully in white, as two lit candles cast a golden glow around her head. The solemn parable is meant to demonstrate God’s mercy and the possibility for redemption. Le Retour was the first painting by an American artist bought by the French government.
Detail, Henry Mosler, Le Retour, 1879, oil on canvas, 120 x 102 cm (Musée d'Orsay, Paris)

Representing Breton life

In a revealing essay, an exemplar for the type of critical discussions needed to meaningfully expand the field of nineteenth-century Jewish American art, art historian Albert Boime argues that Mosler was attracted to traditional Breton spirituality because of the region’s ability to retain traditional customs in a rapidly modernizing world. Boime claims that by painting Breton life, Mosler reconciled his attachment to tradition without producing religious imagery of Jewish subjects. [1] His unearthing of Jewish influence in work without overt Jewish subjects offers an important method for expanding our understanding of the work of Jewish artists.
Left: Henry Mosler, Le Retour, 1879, oil on canvas, 120 x 102 cm (Musée d'Orsay, Paris); right: Jacob Meijer de Haan, Still life with profile of Mimi, 1889, oil on canvas, 50.2 x 61.4 cm (Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam)
Based on the success of Le Retour, Mosler continued to picture peasant costume and life in Brittany, although painted in a much more conventional, literal manner than the Dutch Jewish artist Jacob Meijer de Haan, and non-Jews, such as Emile Bernard and Paul Gauguin, who were also attracted to the region but with avant-garde aspirations. Mosler meticulously recorded Breton dress, customs, and domestic interiors, and he painted Breton wedding traditions on several occasions, such as The Wedding Feast (c. 1892, now lost), exhibited at the
and then acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art to much fanfare. Interested in accurate representations and fascinated by the rural exotic, Mosler collected Breton costumes and objects to ensure his paintings’ authenticity.
Henry Mosler, Pilgrim's Grace, 1897, oil on canvas, 97.47 x 131.45 cm (Allentown Art Museum)

About Henry Mosler

Mosler won major awards: a Gold Medal at the 1883 Paris Salon; a Gold Medal at the International Exposition in Nice (1884); a Third Class Medal at the 1888 Paris Salon; and a Silver Medal at Paris’s Universal Exhibition (1889). Like Moses Jacob Ezekiel, he was a highly honored American expatriate in Paris. Mosler was named Chevalier of the Legion of Honor and an Officer of the French Academy. When returning permanently to the United States after two decades in Europe, Mosler spent the remainder of his days in New York and painted historical genre scenes. His canvas Pilgrim’s Grace depicts a different moment of piety than Le Retour, in this case that of a solemn Puritan family celebrating their first Thanksgiving.
Henry Mosler, "City of Cincinnati, Ohio" and "Union Volunteers crossing the Ohio River to Covington on a pontoon bridge," Harper's Weekly, September 27, 1862 (Lincoln Financial Foundation Collection)
Mosler was born in Silesia and arrived in the U.S. at age eight. After a stint in New York City, the Mosler family settled in Cincinnati, which boasted a large German Jewish population. For an aspiring artist, Cincinnati held promise as an artistic center; among others, well-known sculptors Henry Kirke Brown and Hiram Powers were once based there, as were painters John Twachtman and James H. Beard (with whom Mosler studied). Mosler was involved in Civil War efforts, not as a soldier but as an artist-correspondent for
, joining the ranks of other prominent artists, such as Winslow Homer.
Left: Henry Mosler, Plum Street Temple, 1866, oil on canvas, 92.1 x 79.4 cm (Cincinnati Skirball Museum); right: "Progress March" sheet music cover, 1867, color-tinted lithograph (College of Charleston Libraries)

Art as divine worship

An expatriate for two decades, Mosler ran a Parisian studio, where students took private lessons and artists visited him, including Moses Jacob Ezekiel and another coreligionist, painter Toby Rosenthal. The periodical
extolled Ezekiel and Mosler together: “Two Israelites in Cincinnati have recently attained high distinction in fine arts.” [2] Mosler executed a few works that indicate a relationship with the Jewish community in Cincinnati. Without a commission, Mosler elected to paint Plum Street Temple (1866), a canvas detailing the exterior of the newly constructed house of worship for B’nai Yeshurun in Cincinnati, led by
, the subject of Ezekiel’s portrait bust. Mosler set his picturesque scene against a cloudy sky. He precisely delineated the Moorish-style architecture, which referred to the rich history of Spanish Jewry and also reflected the style used for some European synagogues of the time. This style adopted the stately domes and grand archways of mosques found in the Iberian Peninsula. The synagogue dominates the canvas, dwarfing the well-dressed congregants who mingle before the structure. A color-tinted lithograph of the building, based on Mosler’s painting, graced the cover of a musical score, “Progress March,” written for the synagogue’s dedication.
Henry Mosler, Therese Bloch Wise, 1867, oil on canvas (Cincinnati Skirball Museum)
Portraits commissioned from Mosler by the Jewish community include a likeness of Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise’s first wife, Therese Bloch Wise. Despite these explicit religious associations, Mosler characterized art as his spiritual connection: "I am an eternal worshipper of the Creator. When I transfer a beautiful model to the canvas, I am engaged in an act of divine worship." [3] This belief in art as religion is repeated among a number of later Jewish Americans.
[1] Albert Boime, “Henry Mosler’s ‘Jewish’ Breton and the Quest for Collective Identity,” in Barbara C. Gilbert, Henry Mosler Rediscovered: A Nineteenth-Century Jewish-American Artist, exh. cat. (Los Angeles: Skirball Museum, 1995), pp. 91–127.
[2] “Two Israelites in Cincinnati have recently attained high distinction in fine arts,” American Israelite (August 1, 1879): p. 6. Years later, the artists were praised together again: “Ezekiel-Mosler: Two Famous Cincinnatians,” American Israelite (March 31, 1898): p. 8.
[3] Quoted in “New York Jews in Art: No. 11–Henry Mosler,” Federation Review 4, no. 4 (March 1910): p. 77.
Additional resources
Barbara C. Gilbert, Henry Mosler Rediscovered: A Nineteenth-Century Jewish American Artist, exh. cat. (Los Angeles, 1995).
Essay by Dr. Samantha Baskind

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