Skip to content

Washington Allston (1779–1843)

Head of a Jew

APG 8578

c. 1817

WASHINGTON ALLSTON (1779–1843), "Head of a Jew," 1817. Oil on canvas, 30 x 25 in.
WASHINGTON ALLSTON (1779–1843, "Head of a Jew," 1817. Oil on canvas, 30 x 25 in. Showing period gilded cove frame.


Head of a Jew, 1817
Oil on canvas, 30 x 25 in.

RECORDED: Washington Allston, “Received of ... the Boston Athenaeum One hundred dollars for the Study from the Jew’s head ... “ Archives of the Boston Athenaeum, December 10, 1829) // Treasurer’s Report (Boston Athenaeum, December 30, 1829) // Josiah Quincy, “Minutes,” in Trustee’s Records, Annual Report (Boston Athenaeum, January 4, 1830), p. 209, as one of the “Jew’s heads” // “Report, committee on Fine Arts,” Archives (Boston Athenaeum, January 4, 1830), acknowledges purchase of “head of a Jew” // Sarah Clarke, “Our First Great Painter, and His Works,” Atlantic Monthly XV (February 1865), p. 135 // Trustee’s Records (Boston Athenaeum, 1865), as lent to Albert Bierstadt for exhibition in Buffalo (no record can be found that this exhibition was actually held) // Moses F. Sweetser, Allston (1879), p. 187 // Mabel Munson Swan, The Athenaeum Gallery, 1827–1873 (1940) as either p. 17 "Head of a Jew," or p. 60 no. 75 "Sketch of a Jew" // Edgar Preston Richardson, Washington Allston: A Study of the Romantic Artist in America (1948), pp. 116, 201 no. 95 (purchase date given as 1833 [sic]) // American Paintings in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (1969), vol. I, p. 13, no. 60 // David Dearinger, “Washington Allston,” in Stanley Ellis Cushing and David B. Dearinger, Acquired Tastes: 200 Years of Collecting for the Boston Athenaeum, exhib. cat. (Boston Athenaeum, 2007), p. 212 n. 3. 

EXHIBITED: Boston Athenaeum, Massachusetts, 1828, Exhibition (nos. 146, 148, and 171 have interchangeable titles) // Harding’s Gallery, Boston, Massachusetts, 1839, Exhibition of Pictures Painted by Washington Allston, p. 5, no 20, as “Sketch of a Polish Jew” // Apollo Association, New York, 1841, March Exhibition, no. 55, as “Portrait of a Polish Jew, a Sketch” // Boston Athenaeum, Massachusetts, 1850, Exhibition, no. 75, as “Sketch of a Jew” // Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts, 1881, Exhibition of the Works of Washington Allston, p. 13, no 221, as “Sketch of a Polish Jew” // Lowe Art Museum, University of Miami, Coral Gables, Florida, 1975, The Paintings of Washington Allston, p. 23, no. 15, 38 illus. // Hirschl and Adler Galleries, New York, 1976, The American Experience, (n.p.) no. 16 illus. // Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, 1979–80, “A Man of Genius:” The Art of Washington Allston, 1779–1843, p. 193 no. 45 illus. // Hirschl & Adler Galleries, New York 1982, American Art from the Colonial  and Federal Periods, p. 46, no 33 illus. 

EX COLL.: the artist; to the Boston Athenaeum, Boston, Massachusetts, purchased in 1829; on deposit with the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1879–1976; to [Hirschl & Adler Galleries, New York]; to private collection, to [Hirschl & Adler Galleries, New York]; to private collection, until the present

Head of a Jew was painted in England and came back to America with Allston on his voyage home. It is a product of the period when Allston was flush with enthusiasm for his Belshazzar theme and is one of a series of paintings and sketches all identified as heads of Jews. Of this series Gerdts writes:

At the time Allston was first working on Belschazzar’s Feast, he painted a series of four studies of Polish Jews (nos. 44–47), whom he had observed in the streets of London. Interest in and appreciation of venerable exotic types are common enough in art..., but Allston’s choice of Polish Jews is significant, for it allies him especially with Rembrandt, both in subject and in interpretation. The four bust-length, life-size studies are similar to and are often related to Belshazzar. Although they constitute prototypes for the group of soothsayers at the right of the canvas, they are not models for any of them, nor would this have been Allston’s reflective methodology. Rather, they provided the basic raw material for his development and rumination. 

Three of the four figures in the series are unfinished, but one of them is complete, with the inclusion of a hand with a ring, holding a staff. There seems to be no explanation for this difference, but Alston may have intended to finish all four and then have either decided against this or become diverted toward other projects.... All four were brought back to America and were shown in the 1839 exhibition of Allston’s paintings at Chester Harding’s Gallery (Gerdts and Stebbins, p. 109).

This portrait is the only one in this series that Allston completed. 

Back To Top