19th Century Ketubah Artist

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There’s a wonderful article in Tablet about Julius Bien, a 19th century New York Jewish artist, who got his start… creating Ketubot. As the article says:

Today, artwork bearing Bien’s name can be found at institutions like the Brooklyn Museum, New York Public Library, Butler Museum of American Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Smithsonian American Art Museum. The ketubot Bien produced early in his career—including the one for Roos and Elsasser, currently housed at New York’s Jewish Museum—did not propel him to mainstream national fame. Instead, he received recognition for making high-quality maps of the expanding country for the government, prints depicting technological advancements like the railroad and reproducing, in lithographed form, Audubon’s Birds of America. As a lithographer, Bien was celebrated for advancing and making accessible 19th-century American knowledge production. Initially, Bien’s success at illustrating American intellectual progress makes his ketubah, a document mired in tradition, seem anomalous. But on close inspection, Bien’s concern for associating progress and American identity manifests in the ketubah. The marriage contract established as progressively American both the immigrants it served and the brand name “Julius Bien.”

It’s interesting: we often think about Ketubah art as a late 20th century innovation, but examples like Julius Bien show us that there is ample precedent.

Bien created Ketubot for a reform shul — but in that era, the reform shuls still used the same traditional Aramaic text! It was only in the mid-20th century, when the reform movement began using different text for their ketubot.

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