Barbara Israel doesn’t exactly admire Gertrude Stein and Peggy Guggenheim, but she is fascinated by the influence these Jewish women had on the art of the 20th century. At times when Jews were facing danger and discrimination, they positioned themselves, Israel said, like the hub of a wheel, connected to some of the greatest talents of their day, and helping to make them famous.
Israel will describe them and other Jewish women who played a similarly influential role when she gives the first of the 2013 Winter Wednesdays talks hosted by Women’s Philanthropy of the Jewish Federation of Princeton Mercer Bucks. The events, starting with hers on Jan. 16, will be held — salon-style — in private homes.
As Women’s Philanthropy director Paula Joffe said, the idea — a revival of a popular program offered about 10 years ago — offers a chance for longtime federation supporters and newcomers to get together “to explore uplifting and intellectually compelling topics.”
She added with a laugh, “And it’s a chance to bring back a delightfully alliterative name.”
Israel — a lawyer, artist, and art historian who lives in West Orange and among whose own work is a series of paintings of Israeli scenes — will speak at a home in Princeton on “The Incredible Influence of Jewish Women on 20th Century Art.”
On Feb. 20, at 7 p.m., Dr. Myra Gutin will speak in Skillman on “First Ladies.” Gutin, a professor of communications at Rider University in Lawrenceville, is the author of The President’s Partner: The First Lady in the Twentieth Century and Barbara Bush: Presidential Matriarch.
On March 6, at 11 a.m., Barbara Kessel will give a talk in Princeton titled “Suddenly Jewish: Jews Raised as Gentiles Discover their Jewish Roots.” Kessel is director of administration for the Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York and the author of Suddenly Jewish.
The Jan. 16 talk will focus on, among others, Gertrude Stein, the boldly unconventional secular Jew “of modest fortune” who held court in Paris of the early 20th century together with her partner Alice B. Toklas. Israel credits her with “almost single-handedly” establishing the reputations of greats like Picasso and Matisse in the United States, wielding enormous impact while brazenly flouting all the social conventions of feminine behavior.
Peggy Guggenheim, a niece of the family who established the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, came on the scene a while later, and also became a major champion of modern artists. “She would have liked to buy Old Masters,” Israel said, “but her father had died on the Titanic when she was young, and she didn’t have enough money. The people she turned to were struggling to survive and make themselves known, and their work was dirt cheap.”
Much as she shares their passion for art, Israel made it clear she has little in common with either of those women. “They weren’t interested in women’s liberation, and they didn’t seem to do anything to help the Jews in Europe,” she told NJ Jewish News. “In my opinion, both of them were most interested in promoting themselves.
“But they do seem to have been drawn to people who were outsiders, people taking a risk and living unconventional lives, and I was fascinated by the way they formed connections with so many great artists. They were like ‘super-connectors,’ to use a term from our time.”