The Beth Elohim Synagogue and Solomon Nunes Carvalho

Immigration

Most of us know about the massive Jewish immigration to the United States from Central and Eastern Europe that started in the late 1800’s.  But less is known about earlier movements to North America.   

Jews began to settle in Charleston, South Carolina in 1695, 25 years only after the English founded Carolina.  These Jewish immigrants were mostly Sephardim who came to Charleston from England, by way of the Caribbean islands. They were attracted by the burgeoning commercial opportunities but also for the religious freedom and personal rights offered and tolerated by the colony’s Lord Proprietors. (Virtual Jewish Library.)  

Ca. 1812 drawing, KK Beth Elohim Synagogue, built 1792-1794, burned 1838. In 1825, South Carolina architect Robert Mills wrote, “It is a remarkably neat building, crowned with a cupola.”

The first Charleston synagogue, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim (KKBE), or Holy Congregation of the House of God, was opened in 1749.  The congregation followed the Sephardic minhag (liturgy) of the Spanish-Portuguese communities of London and Amsterdam.  By 1764, the synagogue had moved to a third and larger structure. (College of Charleston.) 

One of the KKBE congregants was Solomon Nunes Carvalho. Carvalho was born in Charleston in 1815 to parents who were themselves born in England, and had moved to Barbados, then to the United States.  Solomon studied photography – a new technology back then! – with his father who opened workshops in Charleston and then Philadelphia.  Solomon was also a gifted painter who later studied with famed artist Thomas Sully

The Great Fire and a Heartwarming Gift 

On Friday evening April 27, 1838, fire broke out at the corner of King and Beresford streets in Charleston, soon ravaging more than 1,100 buildings of all kinds – dwellings, tenements, boarding houses, stores, workshops, kitchens, stables and sheds, and four houses of worship. Synagogue Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim was one of them.  

Solomon Nunes Carvalho. Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, Interior, 1838; Oil on canvas. Collection of Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim

Twenty-three year old Solomon immediately started to paint a highly detailed picture of the interior of the synagogue from memory.  A few months later, he presented the canvas to the Beth Elohim trustees “for such compensation as the Board may deem proper to allow”. The sum of fifty dollars was sent to Carvalho by the Congregation!

I had the thrill of seeing this amazing painting and 10 other works of art by Solomon Nunes Carvalho as part of the Princeton University exhibit “by Dawn’s Early Light – Jewish Contribution to American Culture from the Nation’s Founding to the Civil War“.  In the exhibit catalog, Dale Rosengarten, co-curator of the exhibit and curator of the Jewish Heritage Collection at the College of Charleston Library remarked:

“The young painter had captured a haunting memory of the beloved temple: light pours through two rows of compass-headed windows evenly spaced along the side walls… The muted tones of the empty sanctuary capture a mood of sanctity and loss”

Solomon’s Ultimate Calling 

Carvalho continued to paint and to develop his photography business.  In June 1849, he opened a gallery in Baltimore offering both oil portraits and a variety of daguerreotypes—a new process that brought the cost of photography down.  In 1853, Solomon Carvalho was invited by Colonel John C. Frémont to join him on his fifth crossing of the continent. The primary objective of the expedition was to pass through the Rocky Mountains and Sierra Nevada Mountains during winter to document the amount of snow and the feasibility of winter rail passage along the route.  Almost every day of the expedition, Carvalho made daguerreotypes, photographing not only the landscape but also the Native Americans and their settlements.  Fremont was thrilled with Carvalho’s work.

“We are producing a line of pictures of exquisite beauty, which will admirably illustrate the country,”

he wrote to his wife, Jessie Benton Fremont. Only one of these daguerreotypes remains. 

Freedom!

Solomon’s family fled Portugal, Amsterdam, London and the Barbados in search of a better and freer life.  The United States provided them with the religious freedom and the economic opportunities they were seeking.  Solomon’s artistic talent and his business flourished.  In an unselfish act, he left his business behind to join Colonel Frémont’s fifth Continental exploration,  leaving an undelible mark on the Country’s history.  In 1856, John Charles Frémont, now Governor of California, became the first candidate of the Republican Party for the office of President of the United States.

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