Geneva woman's grandfather was a 'One Man Army' against Axis
It's been more than 55 years since Jeanne Persily climbed the stairs to her grandfather's studio in New Canaan, Connecticut, but she still recalls the room's big window, myriad fine brushes and the incredibly talented man who worked there.
"I remember he was very jovial, very kind to his grandchildren," says Jeanne, a Geneva resident. "We weren't scolded if we went in his studio while he was painting."
Only 5 or 6 years old at the time, Jeanne didn't realize just how famous her grandfather was. To her, Arthur Szyk (pronounced Shick) was the grandfather who lived on the big country estate to which she, her sister and parents escaped the compression of Manhattan. However, to the world beyond this estate, he was the "Artist for Freedom" and "One Man Army" who rubbed shoulders with the Roosevelts and many Hollywood personalities.
"I remember that in his day, he was very famous," Jeanne says. "There were always famous people coming to the house. He did kind of go with the Hollywood crowd."
In the 1940s Szyk's brilliant wartime cartoons and caricatures appeared frequently on the covers and inside pages of American magazines like Collier's, Esquire, Time, Look and Liberty. They helped motivate the free world to take up arms against the Axis aggressors by depicting them in sinister, barbaric terms.
Ironically, this same man illustrated children's and religious books. If an illustrated version of "Andersen's Fairy Tales" is in your bookcase, there's a good chance Szyk's illustrations are in it.
There is a hint of Jeanne's sister in one of the illustrations; Szyk frequently used family members as models for his illuminations. Indeed, he cleverly hid his dedication to her in a book that appears in one of the main illustrations. His wife, Julia, bears a strong resemblance to the Snow Queen. And Jeanne's likeness is seen in an unfinished illustration for a book of Mother Goose rhymes.
Despite the historical significance and quality of his work, most people today don't recognize the name Arthur Szyk.
"It always seemed a little strange to me that his name was no longer so recognized. Usually, right after an artist dies, they become very famous," says Jeanne. "In his situation, it was reversed."
Jeanne says interest in her late grandfather's work is enjoying a revival. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., held a special exhibition in 2002. His adopted hometown of New Canaan also held an exhibition. A biography by Joseph P. Ansell, "Arthur Szyk" Artist, Jew, Pole," was published October, 2004, as part of the Littman Library of Jewish Civilization. A film documentary about him was produced and screened in his native Poland, and the History Channel's "History Detectives" show recently had a segment on him. An exhibition of his work, "Justice Illuminated: The Art of Arthur Szyk," was held earlier this year at the Hebrew Union College-Institute of Religion Museum in New York.
The Arthur Szyk Society, founded in 1991, promotes the artist's work and life with its Web site (szyk.org), programs and publications.
A chronology published on the site traces his life from birth in 1894 to Jewish-Polish parents to his work as an artist in Paris, Poland and London and his eventual immigration to the United States in the 1940s.
Jeanne, born in 1945, was only 6 when her grandfather died, so her memories of him are limited. Nevertheless, she has retained an interest in her famous ancestor and collects magazines, books and other ephemera featuring his work. Unlike the typical artist, whose paintings are collected and displayed, Szyk's works were mostly illustrations sent off to the printer for reproduction in books, on magazine covers and newspapers. Jeanne says her grandfather drew on whatever piece of paper or cardboard was handy.
"He would use the back of a piece of cardboard from the dry cleaner," Jeanne says. "He would just whip these things out."
His work, done in pen and watercolors, is extremely detailed, suggestive of computer-generated art. He worked in the tradition of the 16th century miniaturist painters, using brushes only a few bristles thick.
"I think he was a master illuminator," Jeanne says. "We go to museums and I never see anything exactly like his. Others seem primitive compared to his work."
Szyk's passion for his message further elevates his work. Szyk's art was a valuable weapon against the Axis powers during World War II; it is said Hitler placed a price on his head.
"The man stood for so much, he was so passionate about freedom," says Jeanne.
His wartime, anti-fascist cartoons were driven by a hatred of the war machine that invaded his native Poland and sent millions of his race to the death camps. The war touched him a very personal way in 1943, when his 70-year-old mother and her Polish companion were removed from the Lodz Ghetto and murdered in the Maidanek Concentration Camp. In the mid-1940s, he worked on behalf of the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe. Writer Ben Hecht called him a "one-man art department" for the Irgun, a militant pro-Jewish group in Palestine.
Szyk became an American citizen May 22, 1948. That same year, he produced an illuminated Declaration of Establishment of the State of Israel. Two years later, a public dedication of his Illuminated Declaration of Independence was held July 4, 1950, in New Canaan.
He not only painted the illuminations, but also hand lettered the entire text of the documents. The Declaration of Independence is one of the Persilys' favorite works. Jeanne, who was an elementary teacher in the Geneva City Schools for 27 years, and her husband Terry, who served on the school board 32 years, recently donated a copy to the new high school.
"That was our parting gift to the school," said Terry, who retired from the board last year.
Terry and Jeanne say the document is especially significant for them because their wedding vows were drafted in the style of the Declaration of Independence. They were married in 1970.
They met while seniors in college -600- he went to Colgate, she to Cortland. Terry says he first learned about his wife's famous relative when he went to visit her at the family home.
"I didn't know who (Szyk) was, but I recognized his illustrations because my father was a politically active guy," Terry says of his first visit to Jeanne's family home.
Jeanne's mother, who lives in Florida, remains active promoting the art of her father.
"At 84, she still tries to keep her hands in things," Jeanne says. "The older generation is trying to let the younger generation know about him."
Despite Szyk's passion for freedom and his adopted country, he came under investigation by the House Un-American Activities Committee in April 1951. Possibly due to the stress of the investigation, as well as an unhealthy lifestyle, Arthur Szyk died of a heart attack Sept. 13, 1951, at the age of 57.
"Mother said he smoked and ate too much," Jeanne says.