Discover the story behind Aby Warburg’s sketched portrait by American banker and social reformer Isaac Newton Seligman in this blog post by Professor Uwe Fleckner.
Through his brother Felix (1871-1937), who had emigrated to the USA in 1894 and had married into the New York banking family Kuhn, Loeb & Co., Aby Warburg had excellent contacts with the highest social circles of the German-Jewish moneyed aristocracy on the American east coast. Arriving in New York in September 1895 to attend the wedding of his brother Paul (1868-1932) and Nina Loeb (1870-1945), the daughter of the bank’s founder Solomon Loeb (1828-1903), he also got to know the banker and social reformer Isaac Newton (‘Ike’) Seligman (1855-1917), who had married Nina Loeb’s elder sister Guta (1865-1956) back in 1883. Seligman had run the banking firm J. & W. Seligman & Co. since 1894, was a member of numerous political, economic, cultural and charitable associations, and among other things campaigned against local-government maladministration and child labour, and in favour of social housing, decriminalization of prostitution, and civil rights for black people.
The origins of Fish Rock Camp
Towards the end of the nineteenth century there was increasing antisemitic discrimination in the USA. New York’s Jewish families also found themselves socially marginalized by the long-established Anglo-Saxon business dynasties. An incident in which Isaac Newton Seligman’s father Joseph Seligman (1819-1880) was refused entry to the Grand Union Hotel in Saratoga Springs in New York state in May 1877 (‘no Israelites shall be permitted in future to stop at this hotel’, anonymous, A sensation in Saratoga, in The New York Times, 19 June 1877) became a national scandal. As in previous years, the German immigrant and successful banker wanted to spend a few weeks’ holiday with his family in what at the time was the world’s biggest luxury hotel. This led to a press campaign, death threats against both Seligman and the hotel manager, and a successful commercial boycott of the hotel owner’s New York department store. Yet as late as the 1890s antisemitic posters (‘No Jews or dogs admitted here’) are still said to have been seen in Saratoga Springs and other holiday resorts. Events such as these led Jewish families to start setting up their own holiday homes in upstate New York. In 1892 Isaac Newton Seligman purchased a plot of land on the shores of the Upper Saranac Lake in the Adirondack mountains, where he built the Fish Rock Camp property (later known as Sekon Lodge); a lavish two-storey wooden house designed by the architect Arnold W. Brunner (1857-1925), to which in the course of time other buildings were added (Catalogue of the Ninth Annual Exhibition of the Architectural League of New York, exhibition catalogue, American Fine Arts Building, New York, 1893).
Aby in Adirondacks
When Aby Warburg left New York for the Adirondacks in autumn 1895 to spend a few days recuperating from his long transatlantic voyage at Fish Rock Camp, the host and dilettante artist recorded him in a drawing dated 24 September, with the caption ‘Aby in Adirondacks’. The guest, whose characteristic features were poorly rendered in the very amateur portrait but who is still recognisable by his dark moustache, is sitting in a relaxed pose and with an attentive gaze in a garden chair on the terrace of the property, with the large expanse of Upper Saranac Lake, the vegetation on the opposite shore and the hint of a mountain ridge in the background. Rather than in a formal suit, the traveller is dressed in the appropriately sloppy clothes of a pioneer, with a wide-brimmed hat similar to those seen in some photographs of Warburg from his time in America. The modest sheet of paper thus not only documents his personal links to the German-Jewish families of the New York finance world, but also shows that he had already equipped himself for his trip to the ‘wild’ regions of the USA – within a matter of weeks the young scholar set off by train for Colorado.
Uwe Fleckner is professor of Art History at Hamburg University, co-director of the Warburg-Haus, one of the directors of the Bilderfahrzeuge Project, and co-editor of the collected writings of Carl Einstein and Aby Warburg. He is the founder of the Forschungsstelle Entartete Kunst (Research Center on Degenerate Art) and author of numerous books and articles on 18th to 21st-century art history, especially on French and German art and art theory, and political iconography.