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Lionel Reiss

REISS, LIONEL (1894–1986), U.S. painter, printmaker, watercolorist. Born in Jaroslav, Galicia, a four-year-old Reiss and his family immigrated to New York in 1898. Reiss attended the Art Students League and then worked as a commercial artist for newspapers, publishers, and a motion picture company. Reiss was art director for Paramount Studios and the creator of the now famous MGM lion. In 1930, Reiss made a decision to leave New York to travel to Europe, North Africa, and the Near East, accumulating material for art with Jewish subject matter, often focusing on Jewish life in Eastern Europe. Reiss published some of the fruits of his travels in a limited edition folio titled My Models Were Jews in 1938. In part, this work attempted to negate Hitler's assertion of a distinctive "Jewish type" with images of a wide range of different Jews in varying milieus, including the Venice ghetto, the Jewish cemetery in Prague, and an array of shops, synagogues, streets, and marketplaces. All of his depictions are infused with a great sensitivity to details of dress, hair, facial features, and expression often suggested with an economy of line which still manages to retain a powerful descriptive quality. Reiss' subject matter was wide-ranging, from the gritty realism of a group of near-derelicts escaping the heat on a tenement rooftop in New York Summer Night (c. 1946) to more brilliantly colored images such as the watercolor and gouache Spring Promenade (c. 1946), which depicts a bevy of well-dressed New Yorkers parading through Central Park. Reiss also completed paintings lighter in hue and spirit which reflect the artist's observation of life in Israel, such as Tel Aviv Balconies, Boy from Safed, and Yeminite Girl. He published and illustrated New Lights and Old Shadows (1954) and A World at Twilight, two books featuring text by I.B. Singer. He illustrated many other books including the English edition of Ḥayyim Naḥman *Bialik's poem Hamatmid, published in 1947, for which he created the etching The Talmud Student, a somewhat expressionistically rendered depiction of a reader, his weary but engrossed expression illuminated by vibrant candlelight. Reiss' work has been exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Carnegie Institute, and the Whitney Museum. His art has been collected by many institutions, including, among others, the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Tel Aviv Museum.


L.S. Reiss, My Models Were Jews: a Painter's Pilgrimage to Many Lands: a Selection of One Hundred and Seventy-Eight Paintings, Watercolors, Drawings, and Etchings (1938); O.Z. Soltes, Fixing the World: Jewish American Painters in the Twentieth Century (2003).

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.