One of the best-known paintings in the Magnes Museum is “The Jewish Wedding,” signed in Cyrillic letters ‘A. Trankowski’. According to museum records, its original owner lived in Odessa and then sold the painting in the US in the 1940s. The painting later turned up in New York and was purchased for the Magnes by friends of the original owner’s daughter. The provenance is curious but the painting itself is even more of a mystery – who was the artist? When did he paint it? Why did it become so popular? And most of all – is it a forgery?
“The Jewish Wedding” was illustrated in the Universal Jewish Encyclopedia (1942) volume 8, p. 578, and in the September 1902 issue of the German Jewish cultural magazine Ost und West. It was also reproduced on a postcard printed in Berlin around 1905 and on a similar one from Warsaw. Still another postcard, probably also early 20th century and perhaps printed in New York, has a Jewish New Year’s greeting and text - it was available online not long ago.
All of these reproductions are slightly different, mostly in the background, from the Magnes painting.
Sheila Braufman, former Magnes curator, had researched Trankowski for years, consulting experts worldwide; though he clearly was an experienced artist, very little information about him – or other paintings by him – came to light. She learned that he was probably from Russia, worked during the late 19th or earlier 20th century, that the signature was pre-Russian revolution in style, and that based on the architecture in the painting it possibly depicted a village in the Ukraine. She was able to correct some of the original faulty information in the records, including the identification in the Encyclopedia that it was Polish, but it remained a mystery.
But there was an unexpected turn of events…
A few years ago, Sotheby’s Tel Aviv contacted us about a photograph of a similar painting shown to them by a private collector– they had never seen the actual painting and didn’t know if it was signed. They knew nothing about the artist either and wanted to know if we could provide any information.
Then, last year, I received a call from a family in Philadelphia who owned an almost identical painting (they were the ones who had contacted Sotheby’s, in fact.) After we spoke on the phone, Dalia Singer wrote me that in 1965, her father, who had immigrated to Israel in 1921, was re-united with a sister who had remained in Russia. She gave him an unsigned painting that she said had been rolled up in their parent’s closet and he took it back to Israel. A year later, he described the image to an artist he knew in Tel Aviv who immediately recognized it and showed him the postcard, printed in Warsaw, where the name A. Trankowski appears – the artist knew about the Magnes painting as well. The family was amazed to find that there were other versions and wanted to learn more…
Singer had done her own research and discovered that two paintings signed Alexey Ivanovich Trankowski had been offered for sale at the Bruun-Rasmussen auction house in Copenhagen in 2007. In fact, within the last few years, genre paintings – not of Jewish themes – signed ‘Trankovsky’ have been sold at auction in New York as well.
I was able to visit the Singers and look at their painting. Like all the other reproductions, it too was slightly different from ours – this one has a little boy in the lower right-hand corner. So, is our painting a forgery?
The answer is – yes and no. An article on Trankowski by Vladimir Petrov in the magazine “Antikvarnoe Obozrenie,” was mentioned in the Bruun Rasmussen 2007 on-line catalog. Petrov identified Trankowski as one of a group of Russian genre artists at the end of the 19th century whose work was so popular that their paintings were copied extensively, often with the signatures of the original artist. Hillel-Grigory Kazovsky, director of the Jewish museum in Moscow, wrote that Trankowski was a member of the Moscow Union of Artists and was not a Jew but he had no further information about him. Interestingly, a reference work on Russian salon artists of the late 19th century lists an artist named Trankowski but with initials M.K., according to an expert at Sotheby’s.
How and why would this image – clearly a fanciful portrayal of a traditional wedding – have been reproduced in Jewish contexts so soon after it was painted that Jewish publishers must surely have known where it came from? Michal Friedlander, Judaica curator at the Berlin Jewish museum, suggests that they may have been happy to find a good reproductive image for illustration even if they knew that the artist wasn’t Jewish. In our painting’s case, the reproductions tell us something about the limited availability of Jewish ceremony images in the early twentieth century. To this day, images by non-Jewish artists are used to illustrate Jewish ceremonies and subjects in Jewish art and culture museum exhibitions and publications.
The painting continues to be reproduced. Other recent reproductions include the book Picturing Berkeley: A Postcard History By Burl Willes, – you can see a reproduction here and also: “Tantsn Is Lebn”: Dancing in Eastern European Jewish Culture by LeeEllen Friedland, Dance Research Journal, Vol. 17, No. 2. (Autumn,1985), pp. 76-80.
My greatest thanks to Dalia Singer for generously and enthusiastically sharing her story.