Arthur Szyk: Book Illustrations. The Paris Years

As we unravel the body of work included in the Taube Family Arthur Szyk Collection, we have come across books he beautifully illustrated during the 1920s.

Szyk spent the 1920s and early 1930s in Paris, where he was supported financially by the antiques dealer August Decour, and by several art collectors. Decour organized three major exhibitions of Szyk’s work in his gallery in 1922, 1925 and 1928. After spending several months in the Decours residency, Szyk moved to Montparnasse neighborhood with his family. Montparnasse was considered the center for artistic and intellectual life in Paris at the time. Among the artists living there were Marc Chagall, Pablo Picasso, Amadeo Modigliani, Jacques Lipchitz, Marcel Duchamp, and Max Ernst.

The list of books illustrated by Szyk during this period includes the biblical Book of Esther (1925); Gustave Flaubert’s La Tentation de Saint Antoine(The Temptation of St. Anthony, 1926), inspired by a painting then attributed to Bruegel the Elder; Pierre Benoit’s Zionist novel set across the Eastern Mediterranean, Le Puits de Jacob (Jacob’s Well, 1927); and Le juif qui rit (The Laughing Jew, 1926-1927), an anthology of “Jewish humor” edited by Curnonsky and Bienstock, and likely titled after Victor Hugo’s philosophical novel, L’homme qui rit (The Laughing Jew, 1869).

While The Laughing Jew was illustrated with black and white caricatures, both The Temptation of St. Anthony and Jacob’s Well are filled with highly decorative illustrations, which were produced by using the stencil (in French: pochoir) technique. This technique originates in Asia and was used on walls and textiles. Stencil technique was identified Europe with the Art Nouveau and Art Deco movements in Europe. Stencil technique is time intensive as it is produced by a series of layers of color that were applied to each page by hand. Szyk’s colorful book illustrations were highly celebrated as books were produced on Japan paper 250 copies and cost between $150-$450, amounting to approximately $2,000-$6,000 in current market value.





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