Friday, October 23, 2009

Salomon Maimon and portraits of the Vilna Gaon

For the purposes of this blog I have a modest list of things which I consider my Holy Grails, which is to say, things I'd like to uncover them myself. Since I don't want to promote my own scooping, I can't mention what they are, except for one. It's a small thing, but I really want to discover references to the Vilna Gaon in the Latin alphabet while he was alive. (Gothic is fine too.) We'll leave the Polish archives to other people (see.)

Unfortunately I can't consider this post to be any great triumph. I simply forgot an obvious source! Solomon Maimon's Lebensgeschichte was printed in 1793 (that is, four years before the Gaon died), andat the end of his discussion of his brush with nascent Chassidisim it contained the following remark:

An unfortunate typo, but Elias aus Wilda is the Ga'on of Vilna.

The 1888 English translation:

Fortunately the 1911 German edition changed the d to an n:

Since this hardly seems like a post, below is an image from an American shanah tova card from 1899:

This of course raises the question of what the Gaon looked like. The article to read is Zusia Efron's Portrait of the Gaon of Vilna, Two centuries of Imagination. In it he maintains that there is only one portrait which was painted in the Gaon's lifetime. It is the one below, and it is from circa 1750-55.

This is the only "authentic" portrait. All others are later and copied each other after a fashion. The later ones seem to become increasingly more elaborate. First they begin to show him in fancy rabbinic garb, and finally tefillin lies on his head, which apparently didn't begin to make it's debut until the 1880s.

The following image was painted in the 1820s by a Polish artist named Joseph Glowacki (1789-1858)

According to Efron, a similar portrait (i.e., based on this one) was the one which hung in many misnagedic homes. It came from a frontspiece to some sefer or another. Unfortunately I only have a tiny image of it, not really worth posting. However, it is perhaps notable that the image shows him looking quite severe.

As I said, the tefillin didn't turn up until the 1880s. See below, and note the caption (click to view an enlarged copy):

"The only original copy of the Great Genius, Rabbi ELIOHU, known as the "WILNER GOEN"

Here is another version of the tefillin picture, reproduced in the 1948 Agudath Israel of America publication The Jewish face; a portrait gallery, this one a little better than the one above:

It seems that the Gaon not only had tefillin and a yarmulke plopped on his head (where is the strap?) but even his garb was changed, perhaps because what was good rabbinic garb in the 1820s had changed and seemed too . . . fancy?

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