The life and work of a 19th century artist is part of a year-long celebration of Jewish culture

One of the most accomplished painters of 19th century Cincinnati came from a family better known for business than art. Henry Mosler’s father started the Mosler Safe Co., which built an international reputation for durable, secure vaults, and stayed in business for nearly 150 years.

Henry, however, was drawn to the artistic. He became a successful and prolific painter, both in Cincinnati and in Europe, and the Cincinnati Art Museum is examining his life and work with a special exhibition that opens June 10.

Mosler is considered the most important painter of Jewish faith from 19th century Cincinnati, and the exhibit is part of the citywide commemoration of the Jewish Bicentennial, a year-long celebration being marked by cultural and civic organizations across Cincinnati, in collaboration with the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati.  

Mosler’s story is a great example of the Jewish community’s contributions to the culture and history of Cincinnati. His father, Gustavus, brought the family to the U.S. in 1849 from Prussia, what is now Poland. By 1851, the family made their way to Cincinnati, which by then was a destination of Jewish immigration from Europe and was the center of the Reform movement in the Jewish faith.

While Mosler was active in the Jewish community, his participation was more secular than sacred, says Julie Aronson, the museum curator who organized and interpreted the exhibit. “He believed in God and saw God’s presence in nature,” she says. “But he felt he didn’t need to belong to a synagogue or an organization in order to express his faith.”

He painted portraits of prominent members of the Cincinnati Jewish community early in his career. During the Civil War, he worked as a correspondent for Harper’s Weekly, sketching scenes from the war, one of which will be included in the exhibit.   

He married a Cincinnatian. He moved to Germany for a few years to study painting at the Royal Academy, then to Paris, back to Cincinnati, then to New York City. “He was kind of a restless person,” Aronson says. “He did a lot of traveling.”

His work received accolades from the official art world in Paris and Vienna.  “He was very successful as an artist,” Aronson says.

Mosler’s interest in art began at an early age, and the Museum’s extensive collection includes drawings he made at the age of 12. He was a very disciplined painter who would sometimes make multiple sketches of his subject before beginning to paint.  The Museum holds more than 600 of his drawings in its collection, and for the first time, Mosler’s preparatory drawings will be displayed side by side with the oil paintings for which they served as drafts.

“It’s interesting how hard he worked at these paintings,” Aronson says. “And how much effort went into each composition.”

Most of the exhibit will come from the Museum’s collection, which was largely donated by the Mosler family in the 1970s. There are a few notable loans from other institutions, including Mosler’s painting of the Plum Street Temple, which comes from the Skirball Museum at Hebrew Union College.
The exhibition is supported by The Jewish Federation of Cincinnati and the Jewish Cincinnati Bicentennial. The Bicentennial celebration that began last September with the rededication of the restored Chestnut Street Cemetery in the West End, established in 1821, and the first Jewish cemetery west of the Alleghenies. That event led to 200 years of Jewish achievements and participation in the cultural, social, political, and religious life in Cincinnati.

The Bicentennial organizers have partnered with local organizations to share and celebrate the significance of Jewish life in Cincinnati through a year-long series of events.

 “The main goal of the celebration is to inspire, elevate, and connect,” says Tamara Harkavy of the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati. “The Jewish story is pretty inspirational.”

The celebration will continue through October and will include:
  • “Our Shared Story” at the Cincinnati Museum Center explores 200 years of Jewish life in Cincinnati through a new exhibition developed by the Museum Center, the Nancy & David Wolf Holocaust & Humanity Center and the Jewish Cincinnati Bicentennial. Now through October 2.
  • Cincinnati Ballet’s Bold Moves Festival, May 12-22, is an immersive dance experience featuring six rotating main stage productions accompanied by activities and interactive events.
  • “Shared Grief, Different Customs,” a program presented by the Jewish Cemeteries of Greater Cincinnati to learn about different customs at the time of death. It’s May 15 at the Islamic Center of Greater Cincinnati in West Chester.
  • In October, “A Walk through History,” featuring current, former, and now extinct places of worship around West End and Downtown, with tours featuring sites that correspond to images created by Cincinnati photographer J. Miles Wolf.

There’s more, and information, including a full list of events, is available at the Bicentennial website. 

“Henry Mosler Behind the Scenes: In Celebration of the Jewish Cincinnati Bicentennial” will be on view to the public for free in the Sara M. and Michelle Vance Waddell Gallery and the Manuel and Rhoda Mayerson Gallery across from the museum’s Terrace Café. No tickets are required. General admission to the Cincinnati Art Museum is also free.

The Art Museum will also present a lecture associated with the Henry Mosler exhibit. “Jewish American Artists and the Gilded Age” will be Thursday, June 16 from 7–8 PM in the museum’s Fath Auditorium. Samantha Baskind, professor of art history at Cleveland State University, will explore Mosler and Moses Jacob Ezekiel, both Cincinnatians who went on to achieve fame in their day, and their contributions to Jewish American art. The lecture is free for museum members; $20 general public; and $5 for students. Tickets are available on the exhibition webpage.  
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Read more articles by David Holthaus.

David Holthaus is an award-winning journalist and a Cincinnati native. When not writing or editing, he's likely to be bicycling, hiking, reading, or watching classic movies.