Arthur Szyk (pronounced "Shick") (Łódź, Poland, 1894 - New Canaan, Connecticut, September 13, 1951) was a Poland-born American artist, famous for his anti-Axis political illustrations, caricatures, and cartoons during World War II, as well as his illustrations for magazine and newspaper articles and books; including an illustrated Haggadah of Pesach, the Szyk Hagaddah, cited by The Times as "worthy to be placed among the most beautiful of books that the hand of man has ever produced". His illustrations took the form of medieval miniaturists and illuminated manuscripts, which gave them a very distinctive style. Szyk dedicated his work to democracy and freedom, and an end to political injustice and human suffering, saying of his work, "Art is not my aim, it is my means", and "I am but a Jew praying in art".
Szyk was born in Łódź, Poland, to Jewish parents. At one time, he was expelled from school for his antiCzarist, proZionist, and proPolish sketches. Considered a child prodigy, he studied art in the Academie Julian in Paris, France in 1909, in Kraków in 1913, then in Palestine in 1914. During World War I he served in the front lines of Russian Army for six months in 1914, then in 1919-1920 during the Polish-Soviet war, he served as artistic director of the Department of Propaganda for the Polish army in Łódź. He fought as a guerrilla during the Polish-Bolshevik War in 1921 under the name "Lieutenant Alex Szinkarenko", to save Jews from attack.
In 1919, Szyk's illustrated Rewolucja w Niemczech (Revolution in Germany) was published, a satire of post-World War I Germany. In 1921, he moved to Paris, where he illustrated such books as Le Livre D'Esther (The Book of Esther), La Tentation de Saint Antoine (The Temptation of St. Anthony), Le Juif Qui Rit (The Jew who Laughs), and Le Puits de Jacob (The Well of Jacob), and exhibited in the Galeries A. Decour as well as three other one-man exhibitions. In 1924 he was commissioned to go to Morocco for seven weeks to do a portrait of the Pasha of Marrakesh; from 1926 to 1927 illustrated a 45 page copy of the thirteenth century "Bill of Rights" for Polish Jews, the Statute of Kalisz, which was published in 1932; and in 1931 he was commissioned by the League of Nations to illustrate the League of Nations Covenant, which went unfinished but was exhibited in Geneva. He was awarded a Gold Cross of Merit by the Polish government for his exhibitions at the Musee Galleria in Paris, and the Musee d'Art et d'Histoire in Geneva.
In 1931, Szyk began a series of 38 watercolor miniatures on George Washington and the American Revolution, entitled Washington and his Times; these were purchased by Polish President Ignacy Mościcki and presented to US President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and remain in the FDR Library. In 1934, Szyk visited the United States to receive the George Washington Bicentennial Medal from the US Congress, exhibiting Washington and his Times at the Library of Congress, then returned to Poland to continue work on his Hagaddah, begun in the 1930s and completed in 1936. Because his illustrations were clear and unfavorable references to the Nazis, however, publishers in Poland and Czechoslovakia rejected it for fear of antagonizing Germany. In 1937, Szyk moved to London, where Beaconsfield Press agreed to publish his Haggaddah, on the condition that overt and direct references to the Nazis be removed. However, once Germany and Britain were at war, Szyk's history of opposition to the Nazis in his art became an asset; the Haggadah was dedicated to King George VI, who was given the first copy, and Szyk was sent to the United States by Britain and Poland to help publicize the anti-Nazi cause. In December, 1940 he settled in New Canaan, Connecticut, and began publicly advocating US involvement in defeating the Nazis.
Szyk was inspired by Roosevelt's 1941 "Four Freedoms" State of the Union speech to illustrate the Four Freedoms, preceding Norman Rockwell's Four Freedoms by two years; these were used as postage stamps during the war, and later illustrated a Four Freedoms Award which was presented to Harry Truman, George Marshall, and Herbert H. Lehman. His work was very popular in the United States, appearing in magazines and newspapers, books, posters and advertising in addition to galleries and museums. In 1941 he published The New Order, one of the first books of antiNazi caricatures in America, and staged an exhibit on behalf of the British-American Ambulance Corps. He became the editorial cartoonist for the New York Post, contributed to Time, Esquire (magazine), and Collier's, produced advertisements for Coca Cola and US Steel, and exhibited in the galleries of M. Knodler & Co., Andre Seligmann, Inc., Messrs. Wildenstein & Co., the Philadelphia Art Alliance, the Brooklyn Museum, the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, and the White House in the 1940s. His diverse subjects included coffee, steel, airlines, the United Nations, the American Cancer Society, the United States Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, and Simon Bolivar.
He closely followed the reports of atrocities and massacres by the Nazis, and in his work kept up the pressure on the Allied powers to intervene. Eleanor Roosevelt said of him, "This is a personal war of Szyk against Hitler, and I do not think that Mr. Szyk will lose this war!" He joined the antiNazi Bergson Group, where he became "our one man art department", according to Ben Hecht.
After the war, Szyk continued to advocate the Zionist cause, and in 1948 he illustrated the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel; meanwhile, his work included illustrations for Andersen's Fairy Tales, Pathways Through the Bible, and The Ten Commandments, along with commissions for the Limited Editions Club. He was commissioned by Canadian entrepreneur and stamp connoisseur, Kasimir Bileski to illustrate the United Nations Series; in 1946 he published Ink & Blood. On July 4, 1950, Szyk's illustrated Declaration of Independence was publicly dedicated in New Canaan.
Szyk married Julia Liekerman in 1916, and had a son, George, in 1917, and a daughter, Alexandra, in 1922. On May 22, 1948, Szyk became a US citizen. In April, 1951, however, Szyk was investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee; four months later, he died of heart failure. He was eulogized by Rabbi Ben Zion Bokser, who said
- Arthur Szyk was a great artist. Endowed by God with a rare sensitivity to beauty and with a rare skill in giving it graphic representation, he used his talents to create a series of works of splendor and magnificence that will live forever in the history of art. But Arthur Szyk was more than a great artist. He was a great man, a champion of justice, a fearless warrior in the cause of every humanitarian endeavor. His art was his tool and he used it brilliantly. It was in his hands a weapon of struggle with which he fought for the causes close to his heart.,
and by Judge Simon H. Rifkind who said,
- The Arthur Szyk whom the world knows, the Arthur Szyk of the wondrous color, and of the beautiful design, that Arthur Szyk whom the world mourns today—he is indeed not dead at all. How can he be when the Arthur Szyk who is known to mankind lives and is immortal and will remain immortal as long as the love of truth and beauty prevails among mankind?
His work continues to be exhibited and published today, including a reprint of the Szyk Haggadah, and a recent book, Justice Illuminated: The Art of Arthur Szyk. As part of its millennium celebration in 2000, the Library of Congress once again exhibited Szyk's art.
- Arthur Szyk, Library of Congress article
- About Arthur Szyk
- Szyk Haggadah
- Arthur Szyk (Biography)
- An Arthur Szyk Chronology
- Arthur Szyk Society website
- United States Holocaust Memorial Museum - Szyk online exhibition; and Encyclopedia article The Art and Politics of Arthur Szyk
- Arthur Szyk: Artist For Freedom, Library of Congress exhibition
- A Handwritten Open Letter "From Arthur Szyk, successful artist, to Adolph Schiklgruber, alias Hitler, flop"