Andre Durenceau, the French-American illustrator and muralist, mines his Jewish heritage in this symbolist 1950s imagining of the sanctuary of a synagogue. Evoking horror and hope, this severe surrealist image presents a vision of resurrection in the aftermath of World War II. The oil on canvas is technically refined, and filled with historically resonant Judaica imagery from biblical to modern times. The two tablets which dominate the ark in the background contain the first 10 letters of the alef-bet, eluding to the Ten Commandments. In the foreground are two Menorahs that reference the candelabra which were used in the Temple to facilitate daily sacrifices. Each Menorah has six standards floating above it, representing the twelve tribes of Israel. Traditional symbols dominate the scene beneath tragedy-laden murals which suggest the historical memory of the Jewish people. Though the figures who are shown entering the temple appear serene, tortured and surreal expressionist wraiths loom above them, drawing from biblical and legendary imagery of destruction, peace, and rebirth. At any given moment the deeply tragic history of the Jewish people may feel far away to the American family walking into the clean and pristine modernist synagogue, but as the title “Invitation” makes clear, taking part in Jewish life means allowing the frightening truths of history into one’s soul along with the comforts of tradition.
We have been able to find no usage history on this work, and it is equally possible the painting was intended as fine art or as an artist’s design for a synagogue sanctuary. Durenceau had a long and storied career, creating magazine covers for Theater magazine, working as a textiles designer and advertising illustrator. His dark, avant-garde vision was highly influential throughout the Art Deco and mid-century modern period. After graduating from the Paris Beaux Arts Institute in the 1920s, Durenceau worked as a prominent muralist whose work was commissioned by Joan Crawford and the Vanderbilt Whitney family. His modernist visions also were on view at the 1939 New York’s World’s Fair.
In the late 1940s/early 1950s, he was still actively working as a muralist, while pursuing a career as a historical artist for National Geographic, and an illustrator for mainstream glossy magazines such as the American Weekly and Reader’s Digest. This piece has both the scope of mural art and the narrative detail of magazine illustration.