Before the Nazi rise to power, the Museum Folkwang in Essen was a leader in the collecting and display of modern art in Germany. By 1934, Hitler’s government had dismissed the Folkwang’s progressive director and replaced him with the ardent Nazi Count Klaus von Baudissin, an SS officer and art historian. One of the Count’s first acts was to paint over the museum’s famous murals by the German Expressionist Oskar Schlemmer. Baudissin also served on the Ziegler commission, responsible for impounding “degenerate” art from German museums. From the Museum Folkwang the commission seized and dispatched to Munich an astounding total of 1,202 works of art, including Chagall’s Purim, now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Louis E. Stern Collection. The painting—the Folkwang’s only Chagall—was acquired in the 1920s by the previous director, Ernst Gosebruch.(1) Set in a Russian town, its theme is the celebration of Jewish festival of Purim, which commemorates the deliverance of the Persian Jews. In the center, a boy carries Purim sweets from the market stall-keeper on the right. Nazi officials chose Purim, along with three other works by Chagall, for display in the notorious Degenerate Art exhibition, which opened in Munich in July 1937.
Although the propaganda surrounding the Degenerate Art exhibition emphasized its “Jewishness,” of the 112 artists represented in the exhibition, only six were Jews, including Chagall. Chagall was a Russian-born artist who spent most of his career in France. Most likely he was included in the Degenerate Art exhibition because his early work had become famous in Germany. Purim was displayed in Room 2 of the exhibition, which contained only works by Jewish artists. On the walls, quotations from Hitler and the Nazi art theorist Alfred Rosenberg (soon to become head of the art-looting task force, the ERR) condemned the “incompetents and charlatans,” the “Jews and Marxists,” whose works appeared there.(2)
Following the Degenerate Art exhibition the German dealer Ferdinand Möller, one of the four appointed to dispose of the confiscated art, exchanged Purim for other artwork.(3) The Berlin collector and gallery owner Dr. Kurt Feldhäusser next acquired the painting, probably directly from Möller. Although German citizens were prohibited by law from buying “degenerate art,” in practice the ban was often ignored. Feldhäusser, in fact, seems to have made a specialty of acquiring Nazi-condemned art from German museums, especially works by Chagall and by Expressionist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. After Feldhäusser died in a bombing raid on Frankfurt in 1944, Purim was brought to the United States by his mother, Marie Luisa. She sold it through a New York dealer, Erhard Weyhe, to New York collector Louis E. Stern on October 11, 1949.(4)