The Book of Judith has a tragic setting that appealed to Jewish patriots and it warned of the urgency of adhering to Mosaic law, generally speaking, but what accounted for its enduring appeal was the drama of its narrative. The story revolves around Judith, a daring and beautiful widow, who is upset with her Jewish countrymen for not trusting God to deliver them from their foreign conquerors. She goes with her loyal maid to the camp of the enemy general, Holofernes, with whom she slowly ingratiates herself, promising him information on the Israelites. Gaining his trust, she is allowed access to his tent one night as he lies in a drunken stupor. She decapitates him, then takes his head back to her fearful countrymen. The Assyrians, having lost their leader, disperse, and Israel is saved. Though she is courted by many, she remains unmarried for the rest of her life.
Moses J. Ezekiel (1844-1917)
Judith, ca. 1880
Maria Longworth Nichols Storer, founder of the Rookwood Pottery, purchased the sculpture from the artist
Bequest of Margaret Rives Nichols, Marquise de Chambrun, 1952.66
After graduating from VMI in 1866, Ezekiel studied human anatomy at the University of Virginia for a short time before moving to Cincinnati to be with family and to attend J. Insco Williams’ Art School, in 1868. In Cincinnati, Ezekiel failed to gain an apprenticeship with the notable Ohio sculptor, Thomas D. Jones, so instead traveled abroad to Berlin where he studied at the Royal Academy. During the Franco-Prussian war, Ezekiel served as a French spy for supplemental income and after a short imprisonment, he came to Italy and began producing the work for which he is most notably remembered.
Ezekiel produced his first sculptural work while still in Cincinnati, a self-directed study of a bust that he exhibited in the city.
From the humblest origins, Moses Jacob Ezekiel sought a public education at America’s first state military college, the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) during the Civil War. While at VMI, he fought as a member of the VMI Cadet Battalion on the Confederate side at the Battle of Newmarket (May 15, 1864). There he witnessed the deaths and maimings of some of his closest friends. He remained with the cadet corps and fought in the Richmond trenches in defense of his native city. After the war, Ezekiel returned to VMI and graduated in 1866. He then launched a brilliantly successful artistic career in Europe where, despite a long life as an émigré, he remained close to his American and Virginian roots.
One of 14 children, Ezekiel was born on October 28, 1844 in Richmond, Virginia, in a poverty-stricken neighborhood. His grandparents, of Spanish-Jewish origin, had immigrated in 1808 to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, from Holland—where the family had fled some 400 years earlier following the Spanish Inquisition.
VMI, as a public college and then under a wartime regime, was one of the few institutions available to him at reasonable cost and considering his relatively poor academic preparation. His mother, Catherine de Castro Ezekiel, appreciated that the wartime situation might lead him to fight for the South. She admonished him, as she sent him off to VMI to learn the arts of war, that she wouldn’t have a son who would not fight for his home and country. Ezekiel later explained his reasons for going to VMI and, by implication, fighting for the Confederacy. He asserted that he’d gone there, not to defend slavery—an institution which, in this thinking, had unfortunately been inherited and limited by Virginia. Rather, Ezekiel further asserted, he went there to defend Virginia when she seceded to avoid providing troops to the Union to "subjugate her sister Southern states". These views were typical of the VMI cadets of that period, ignoring the fact that his state in 1868 had the largest slave population in the South and, over the previous 30 years, had exported 200,000 slaves to the other Southern states.
With little point in returning home to Richmond, where his parents had lost everything and opportunities were non-existent, Ezekiel followed the advice of Cincinnati artists and went abroad to Berlin. In the German capital, he studied at the Royal Art Academy. There he earned money by teaching English and selling some of his works.
His sculptures were in the romantic, elaborate and ornate style which was highly popular in the Victorian era. Ezekiel accomplished some 200 works in his prolific career.
When World War I trapped Ezekiel in Rome, he put aside his sculptures to help organize the American-Italian Red Cross. Shortly afterward however, on March 27, 1917, he died in Rome.
A Hispanic Month Tribute to Moses Ezekiel