Portraits at Rodef Shalom: A mystery in primary colors
Anonymous artSynagogue seeks to solve stumper

Portraits at Rodef Shalom: A mystery in primary colors

Not every picture tells the whole story

Rodef Shalom Congregation is hoping to find more information about these portraits. Photo provided by Rodef Shalom Congregation.
Rodef Shalom Congregation is hoping to find more information about these portraits. Photo provided by Rodef Shalom Congregation.

Dust off your magnifying glass and grab some Scooby Snacks — Rodef Shalom Congregation has a mystery it’s hoping you can help solve.

On Jan. 11, the Reform congregation created a Facebook post featuring two portraits, a man and a woman, that were recently restored. The catch: The congregation has no clue who is depicted in the paintings or the identity of the artist.

The Facebook post — which poses the questions “Do I look familiar” and “Could I be your ancestor” — said the couple might be relatives of the congregation’s founding families but has no information to help identify the pair.

Rodef Shalom is hoping that someone seeing the post might recognize the faces and help solve its archival mystery.

Bill Battistone, president of Rodef Shalom, said the paintings are believed to be older than the congregation itself.

“They are from somewhere around the 1840s,” he said. “We asked around, and no one knew who they were. We’re not even confident they are husband and wife. They might be brother and sister or not related at all.”

The style of the paintings, he said, does suggest some connection, but with no more information to help identify the subjects or artist, that is only a guess.

And while there is no verified connection between the two subjects, there are a few telltale signs suggesting a single artist and a familial relationship. The background in both paintings is similar, as is the style of the portraits and their frames.

Battistone said he wasn’t sure if these are the only unidentified pieces in the congregation’s archive, but he’s anxious to have the mystery solved.

The congregation, he said has reached out to members the way you do in the 21st century — through social media and emails.

“It’s drawn some interest,” he said. “We have these two gorgeous portraits that are unnamed and don’t know anything about. People always have an interest in mysteries. We have a lot of people that are waiting to find out.”

Martha Berg, Rodef Shalom’s archivist, said there are 225 pieces of art in the synagogue’s archives and explained there has not been a consistent process for accepting works of art as donations over the years — leading to the mystery now.

Berg said one of the portraits is dated 1837 and has an undecipherable artist signature.

“The portraits are of pretty young people,” she said, “so it’s possible they could have been members, but not very likely.” Rodef Shalom was chartered in 1856.

It might seem unusual for a synagogue to house large art collections, but Berg said that Rabbi Emeritus Walter Jacob specifically solicited art donations from members.

Some congregations buy works of art, but usually a synagogue’s art is donated from a family’s collection, she said.

Portraits in the congregation’s collection, she explained, tend to be of subjects who have a particular significance — Josiah Cohen for instance, who was a prominent Pittsburgh judge and president of the congregation’s board in the late 19th and early 20th century.

“So, we have a portrait of him that we keep because he’s part of our history,” she said.

Berg said the mystery portraits are interesting and seem to have an almost Spanish style to them.

“I think they’re very well done, but I would love to know they are,” she said.

Anyone with information about the portraits can reach out to Berg at the synagogue. PJC

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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