Jewish Journal

Silver Lining

The Skirball exhibit of silversmith Myer Myers' art sheds new light on Colonial American Jews.

by Michael Aushenker

Posted on Feb. 28, 2002 at 7:00 pm

Candlesticks, Myer Myers, 1755-60. Photo by Carl Kaufman

Candlesticks, Myer Myers, 1755-60. Photo by Carl Kaufman

Like his better-known silversmith counterpart, Paul Revere of Boston, Myer Myers (1723-1795) became one of the most accomplished artisans of Colonial America -- a practitioner of Rococo-style objects. Unlike Revere, Myers, a New York Jew, also created religious articles, such as Torah finials, or rimonim. In fact, "Myer Myers: Jewish Silversmith in Colonial New York," represents the largest collection ever amassed of Jewish silversmith work. The exhibit runs at the Skirball Cultural Center through May 26.

For the Skirball's Grace Cohen Grossman, senior curator for Judaica and Americana, the exhibit captures the promise of freedom, democracy, and human rights already prevalent in pre-Revolutionary War America.

"The Skirball is the perfect venue for this show because he was an American Jewish craftsman," she said. "He was a patriot, and he took advantage of the free society in New York. He would not have been able to do that in England. In a very culturally diverse New York, his Jewishness was not an issue, as it would have been elsewhere."

Bringing the show to the Skirball is David Barquist, Yale University Art Gallery's associate curator of American decorative art. "In the case of Myers' synagogue silver and the church silver, they were preserved because they were used," Barquist, 44, told The Journal.

Credit Myers' shul, Shearith Israel Synagogue of New York, for the collection's survival. Shearith Israel is also the source of many documents on Myers. The Myers exhibit represents 104 objects -- a quarter of his surviving output -- fashioned between 1746 and 1795. An additional 50 items of the epoch are also included, to place Myers' work in context of the turbulent era.

Even though Revere is the more celebrated of the two men, Barquist says that, aesthetically, "Myers was probably a better silversmith than Paul Revere. Myers seems to have set himself up as the man you went to to get special luxury goods, unusual custom made productions with lavish ornament."

It was unlikely that Revere produced any Judaica, despite the fact that Myers' brother-in-law, Moses Michael Hayes, the first Jew to move to Boston, patronized Revere's silversmith services.

"Revere didn't make ritual silver," Barquist says. "If he did, it hasn't survived. But I don't think he did, because there wasn't a congregation in Boston in his lifetime."

Myers' life has been nothing short of an odyssey for Barquist, who started his research as a dissertation six years ago. In the process of exploring Myers' art, the Skirball exhibit also explores the silversmith's trade in 18th century New York, as well as the Jewish communities of New York, Philadelphia and Newport, R.I. In fact, the Myers show is as much an examination of Jewish life in the Colonies and post-Revolutionary War America as it is of Myers the man and artist.

"One thing that surprised me is that I really didn't encounter much in the way of prejudice or any difficulties that Jews experienced in New York during Myers' lifetime.... We quoted some derogatory caricatures from England, but in the practice of daily life, the Jews of New York City seemed to experience very little anti-Semitism."

Myers was born to Solomon and Judith Myers in New York City in 1723. Myers' parents came to New York from Holland, but were most likely from Eastern Europe originally.

After the traditional seven-year apprenticeship with a master silversmith, Myers registered as a goldsmith in 1746. He became the first native Jew within the British Empire to establish himself as a working retail silversmith since the incorporation of the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths in 1327. By 1753, Myers had established himself as an independent producer of artifacts, at a time when the leading merchants in New York made their fortunes supplying the soldiers during England's wars with France and Spain in the 1740s and, later, the Seven Years' War.

Myers left New York during the Revolutionary War period (1776-1783), relocating his family to two different locations in Connecticut.

"Jews were supporters of the Patriot cause," Barquist says. "The few Jews who stayed behind because they were loyalists -- I'm not sure how they fared. They would be supporting a system that didn't consider them a full citizen."

Myers was definitely a Patriot. He once informed the magistrates of a Tory Jew he overheard in a New Haven tavern making drunken, inflammatory pro-Royalist statements.

Another discovery Barquist has made revolves around the status of Myers' personal life, although, according to Barquist, "personal" might be too strong a word.

"Marriage in the 18th century, whether rich or poor, had not a lot to do with romantic love," Barquist says. "They're on the other side of the Victorian period. The 19th century had greater sentimentality, a whole different outlook. Life in the 18th century was very hard. Unmarried people were very unknown -- you married for survival. It was as much a business arrangement."

In terms of New York's Jewish community, the arrangement nature of these unions was even more dramatic.

"In a city with 200 Jews, the options were extremely limited," Barquist explains. "For [Myers' second wife] Elkaleh Myers Cohen, her father had already died when she married. She came into money. Any up-and-coming man would look for that kind of capital."

The Cohen family was definitely instrumental in backing Myers' business. The husbands of Cohen's sisters were involved in Myers' shop.

As for the nature of their union, Barquist says, "There are no letters that survived, from each other, so it's impossible to know." However, Barquist has learned from legal documents that Myers' children from a first wife did not like their stepmother.

Barquist believes that people interested in both art and American history will be well- rewarded by a viewing of the Myers collection, which travels to the Winterthur Museum, near Wilmington, Del., this summer.

"I hope they'll appreciate how the American culture has been rich and diverse," Barquist says. "Colonial times have traditionally been presented as this monolithic era. There was much more diversity and color to Colonial history that went beyond the Puritan people. Myers was an example of that. He makes a real contribution to American art and great contributions to Jewish American culture. America has benefited from its diversity from Day One, and as much as historians have tried to simplify it, it's a much more complex situation."

"Myers," Barquist concludes, "is a very important figure in the history of American silver. Probably the most important figure in Colonial history who hasn't had an exploration done."

Until now, of course.

"Myer Myers: Jewish Silversmith in Colonial New York" runs at Skirball Cultural Center through May 26.

Michael Prokopow, assistant professor of history at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, will lecture on "At Empire's Edge: Myer Myers, Refinement and the Construction of Material Taste in Georgian America, 1720-1770," March 15, 2-4 p.m.

Tickets for each lecture are: $8 (general), $6 (students) and free (members). For tickets, call (323)655-8587.

For more information, call (310) 440-4500 or visit www.skirball.org .

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