An artistic exploration of four prominent women from the Torah.
Debut author Lewis has long been fascinated by the intersection of Judaism and art, and she finally found time to devote herself to examining it in depth after she retired in 2000 from her position as a college biology professor at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. She began taking art classes and eventually rented studio spaces and exhibited her work in art shows. Inspired by an exhibit of artist Natalie Frank’s work, which offered “feminist re-imaginings” of the Brothers Grimm’s famous fairy tales, the author set out to conduct an artistic investigation of four biblical matriarchs: Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah. Lewis created 12 original paintings of them, done in acrylics and pastels, all beautifully reproduced in this coffee table–worthy hardcover. Each image is accompanied by relevant biblical quotes, fleshing out each story’s context, as well as Lewis’ own commentary, including an account of her artistic process. Her approach is personal but panoramic, and in her artworks, the reader gets the opportunity to see each figure from a variety of angles. For example, Sarah is portrayed as the “face of power,” the “face of joy,” and “the face of brokenness.” Lewis doesn’t produce an iconoclastic deconstruction of these women in this book; instead, she attempts to capture their lives as they lived them, mostly as “spouse, homemaker, child bearer, and caregiver.” As the author herself points out, her art style is clearly inspired by Russian-French artist Marc Chagall’s work, with its dreamy juxtaposition of images, its hint of surrealist imagination, and its use of brilliant color.
Overall, Lewis’ collection of artworks is an engrossing one. She aims for a realistic fidelity to her subjects, but, for her, that doesn’t mean photographic realism. She powerfully captures the complexities of all four of these intriguing figures, all “exemplary yet flawed,” and by extension, she provides profound illustrations of different aspects of humanity. The author also manages to deliver astonishingly complete expressions of the four women despite the limited information that’s available about them: “what we do know suggests they are women of strength: they speak their minds and act; they show loyalty to God and their spouses and families,” she writes. Her descriptions and commentaries offer lucid, even plain, language, permitting the pictures, and the pertinent quotations from Scripture, to take center stage. She also limits the scope of her commentaries on the art itself, mostly offering observations about technical production; this gives readers the interpretive space to freely fashion their own responses to it. What emerges is a moving glimpse into the lives of a group of famous but mysterious women—thrillingly concrete images that gesture in the direction of something more intimate. This book will be an unconventional treat for anyone who shares the author’s interests in modern art and the history of Judaism. The book also hints at a broad, if less modern, interpretation of feminism along the way.
A gorgeous, thoughtful, and quietly provocative assemblage of art.