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History, Herstory, Ourstory: The Case of the Franks-Levy Portraits

October 15, 2013
by Leo Hershkowitz mlevyIn 1951, Captain N. Taylor Phillips (1868-1955), a founding member of the American Jewish Historical Society, donated to the Society seven paintings, which he identified as portraits of the members of the Franks-Levy family, all of whom lived in the early 18th-century New York City as prominent members of a small but important Jewish community. The Franks family matriarch, Abigail Levy Franks, was born in New York in 1696, one year after her parents, Moses and Rachel Levy, arrived there from London. Her husband Jacob Franks also emigrated from London and lived in the Levy household and married 16-year-old Abigail in 1712. Together, they had nine children, six of whom survived infancy. The paintings that Phillips donated are among the earliest examples of Jewish portraiture in the country, and are a kind of bedrock upon which American-Jewish history can proudly claim a share in the history of the United States. They are — as Phillips remarked to those who sought to limit mass immigration, particularly Jewish immigration, during the 1890s — a testament to the important contribution made by Jews and an answer to the “age-old anti-Semitic theory that the Jews, having had nothing to do with the establishment of America or American independence, were simply parasites who would suck the blood of this Country to the latter’s detriment and, perhaps, ruin.” Phillips continued, “if these portraits can assist in promoting the ultimate effect of heightening the pride and dignity of American Israel, even in a small way, as well as to the latest comers to our shores, and also stimulate, love, service and devotion to this great nation, the effort will not have been in vain.” There remain some questions, however, regarding the Phillips’ bequest: Are the various images those of the purported individuals? Is that (above) Jacob Franks or Moses Levy — and what about the others? What evidence exists to verify the identities of the subjects other than the assurances given by the donor? Naphtali Phillips (1773-1870) a noted politician, married Esther B. Seixas, daughter of Rachel Levy; N. Taylor Phillips was Rachel Levy’s grandson. Surely, a genealogical link seems clear. What is not clear, however, is the identity of the subjects and the accuracy of Phillips’ claims. Just as the identity of the portrait painter or painters is not known (although there is well-informed speculation), so are there questions about the individuals depicted, and about whether Phillips inherited or acquired the portraits by purchase. Naphtali Taylor Phillips was born in New York City in 1868, and received a degree from Columbia Law School in 1888. A public official and legislator, during World War I he was a captain in the U.S. Army. He had a passionate interest in American Jewish history, often writing on the subject and helping to found the American Jewish Historical Society in 1892, at a time when strident nativism was expressed in efforts to limit “foreign anti-American” immigration. The immigration issue and its accompanying anti-Semitism were matters of deep concern to the Jewish community. Phillips, for his part, was eager for Jews to be seen as thoroughly American and even more patriotic than the average citizen (he was a member of the Sons of the American Revolution, the American Legion, and the Sons of the St Patrick). Did these concerns play a role in reinforcing his claim as to the authenticity of these colonial portraits? Did “patriotism” override any doubts about his “ancestors”? The need for Jews to be seen as being truly American has often been expressed in articles, lectures, books, and exhibitions. For example, Lee M. Friedman, as president of the American Jewish Historical Society, wrote in 1952 of the necessity of explaining the Jewish contribution to this country so as to “eliminate misconceptions on which anti-Semitism flourishes.” Jews should themselves be, “loyal Jews and loyal Americans,” he wrote. Again, did the need for such identification shape the perception of these portraits as examples of a colonial American Jewish heritage? alevyHow careful was Capt. Phillips’ regarding the identity of the Franks-Levy paintings? In the thirty-four existing letters by Abigail Franks to her son Naphtali, who was living in London, she wrote in specific details of life in New York, including matters relating to family affairs, education, politics, religion, cultural activity. She provided a rare and often revealing account of New York social issues, but very little about portraits of her family. On June 9, 1734, she informed Naphtali, her “Dear Heartsey,” that “Your brother Moses’ picture is don [sic] to be Sent to Mrs. Salomons [Abigail Salomons, her sister-in-law] as for mine and richa’s [her daughter, Richa] it’s too chargable [expensive] therefor you must Content your self without.” She also informs “Heartsey” that her own portrait was at Uncle Asher Franks’ lodgings in London, or perhaps with Uncle Nathan Franks, also in London. Were those portraits, of her and her son Moses, returned to New York? If Abigail was so concerned with costs, would she pay for the other portraits in the Phillips’ collection? Were other family portraits perhaps never commissioned, as they also were too “chargeable”? On October 17th, 1739 Abigail tells “Heartsey” of having received pictures of members of the London Franks family. “Your Father walks about the parlour with such pleasure a Viewing of them as not to be Expresst.” Among these portraits was one of his son Naphtali (“I don’t find that likeness but it was designed for you and that pleases me to have it”). Were these among the portraits in the Phillips holdings? On July 9th, 1733 Abigail informs Naphtali of having received the portrait of Isaac Franks, his uncle: “I think it a very handsome picture the every one that knows him tills me it falls short of the ‘originall’.” But she writes nothing about whether the portraits of the Franks were meant to remain in their possession, and she says nothing as to artists’ names or costs. Some scholars have attributed the portraits to Gerardus Duyckinck, and dated them from the 1720s to 1735. However, I have viewed the portraits with experts from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the New York Historical Society, and the Museum of the City of New York, and they all agree that there is no way to specifically identify the artist. In Abigail Franks’ letters, meanwhile, there is no direct line of evidence that conclusively supports the identity of the portraits’ subjects, nor the artist’s (or artists’) identity. Captain Phillips’ assertions lack substantive, verifiable support. On the other hand, there is no direct evidence opposing his claim. The paintings could be what he said they are. Phillips had in his collection various items relating to his family, including a Hebrew bible belonging to David Franks, a festival book owned by Rachel Franks, a spice box owned by Moses Seixas, and a book belonging to Isaac M. Seixas dated 1748. He also had the genealogy and inherited artifacts — but are these adequate proofs of the identity of the individual portraits? resized_85742-franks-children-with-lamb_19-15183_t630In 2006, the Phillips bequest was sold. The purchaser the Walton Family (of Walmart fame), for their Crystal Bridges Museum of America Art in Bentonville, Arkansas. Perhaps, as these portraits are exhibited, their captions should read “possibly the portrait of --, artist unknown.” Leo Hershkowitz is professor emeritus of history at Queens College. He is the author of Tweed’s New York: Another Look (Anchor Press) and the co-editor of Wills of Early New York Jews, 1704-1799 (American Jewish Historical Society).