Last summer, Benjamin Doller received a phone call from a West Coast synagogue and education center about a Gustav Bauernfeind painting of the Western Wall (Kotel) in Jerusalem that once hung on its walls but had been confined to a closet for years.
Doller, chairman of the Americas at Sotheby’s and a 19th-century art specialist, quickly hopped a plane to see the work. “Seeing this painting up close for the first time went beyond my wildest expectations,” he told JSN. “It is magnificent in scale, and its condition is absolutely spectacular.”
Spectacular, Sotheby’s figures, to the tune of a $2 million to $3 million estimate at its Feb. 1 master paintings and sculpture auction.
A German artist who trained as an architect, Bauernfeind went to the Middle East to paint buildings and monuments, as many of his peers did, according to Doller.
“In particular, he really loved the Holy Land, and settled there in the late 1880s,” he told JNS, noting that Sotheby’s hopes to sell Bauernfeind’s “At the Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem” on Feb. 2. (That work is estimated to go for $150,000 to $250,000.)
The depiction of the Western Wall is Bauernfeind’s “tour de force,” Doller said. “The work is vibrant and profusely populated with visitors—a snapshot of a day of people coming together to worship at the Western Wall.”
He noted that different sorts of Jews—Ashkenazi, Sephardi and Mizrachi—can be discerned by their headgear and dress.
“His attention to detail in the fabrics, silks and coloration are very specific to what was worn by Ashkenazi, Sephardi, and Mizrachi Jews of the late 19th and early 20th century,” Doller told JNS.
Hebrew, and pseudo-Hebrew, inscriptions appear on several of the stones of the Kotel depicted in the painting.
“Today, visitors write prayers and requests to God on small pieces of paper, which they place between stones of the Western Wall. However, back when the artist painted this image, these were written directly on the wall,” Doller said.
JNS recognized an inscription for “Abraham” and “Raphael,” with some other words appearing somewhat ambiguous.
Doller and colleagues teased out more meaning from the texts. “We were able to transcribe some of the names written on the stones in the painting, including ‘Nissim the son of’ on the top left and ‘Abraham the son of Ellia Rephael’ on the bottom right,” he told JNS.
Those who have visited the Kotel will notice that the site depicted in the painting is much more claustrophobic than the Western Wall is today, as a large plaza now faces the wall.
“In the 19th century, this was a much smaller space, and so people were much more crowded together, with less separation of gender,” Doller said. “The painting depicts a kind of unity, and coming together in a moment of worship.”
He singled Bauernfeind’s “attention to detail of the garb” out as particularly beautiful, “as is his desire to showcase Jews from communities around the world praying together.”
“There’s a luminosity and spirituality that suffuses this splendid painting,” Doller said.