King Abdullah I and Arthur Szyk: A Zionist's portrayal of an Arab leader

On November 20, 1977, former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat became the first Arab leader to visit Israel.

Portrait of Abdullah 1 by Arthur Szyk (photo credit: IRVIN UNGAR)
Portrait of Abdullah 1 by Arthur Szyk
(photo credit: IRVIN UNGAR)
On November 20, 1977, former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat became the first Arab leader to visit Israel. This historic occasion set in motion a series of diplomatic negotiations that would earn Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Sadat the Nobel Peace Prize in 1978, and would eventually lead to a fully realized peace treaty in 1979.
More than 40 years have passed since this important first step toward reconciliation between two countries at war for nearly three decades. While Sadat had in part perpetuated this conflict by initiating the Yom Kippur War of 1973, his decision to secure the stability and safety of his country necessitated a future of peace, not war, with Israel.
In recognition of such a significant moment in Middle Eastern relations, we would like to share Arthur Szyk’s portrait of another Arab peacemaker during the artist’s own lifetime. In his beautifully rendered portrait of the Jordanian King Abdullah I, Szyk portrays the first Arab leader to offer his own gesture of peace with the acceptance of the State of Israel. Just as Sadat advanced reconciliation with his visit to Israel in 1977, Abdullah’s actions paved the way for additional Israeli-Arab peace agreements, including the Israel-Jordan peace treaty, signed by Abdullah’s grandson, King Hussein, in 1994.
Szyk’s portrait of Abdullah I bin Al-Hussein (1882-1951), king of Jordan and emir of its predecessor state Transjordan, captures a historic figure in a new era of Middle Eastern politics and international relations.
Szyk created this portrait in 1941, years before the partition of Palestine and the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, and a decade before the ruler’s assassination in 1951. Yet even in this early period, Szyk’s portrait of Abdullah reveals his admiration for a moderate Middle Eastern leader who supported Allied forces during the war, and who would ultimately become the first Arab ruler to recognize the State of Israel. As a Jewish artist and staunch supporter of the Zionist cause, Szyk’s dignified rendering of the Jordanian leader makes a compelling visual addition to the broader context of ongoing Arab-Israeli interactions during this time.
While Szyk produced a number of portraits featuring important military and political figures in the 1940s, rarely did his works feature non-American and European subjects. His portrait of Abdullah I significantly departs from previous works in its portrayal of a prominent Middle Eastern ruler, whose authority and stabilizing presence are emphasized by Szyk in this remarkably detailed work.
Abdullah became the emir of Transjordan in 1921, and later became king to the independent State of Jordan following the nation’s independence in 1946. As emir of Transjordan, Abdullah I joined forces with the British during World War II. His army, the Arab Legion, aided the British occupation of Syria and Iraq in 1941, and contributed significantly to victories for the Allies.
Szyk portrays Abdullah as a distinguished and decorated leader, capable of unifying his country and guiding Jordan through a series of international conflicts. A closely framed image of Abdullah highlights the ruler’s face, which Szyk etches with furrowed brows and deep creases to indicate age and gravitas. Delicate crosshatching and shading in Abdullah’s coat and turban create an additional dimension to the figure.
The military decorations pinned to his chest, although not historically accurate to Jordanian service medals, were likely drawn from similar visual sources, and reference Abdullah’s military command of the Arab Eastern Army against the Ottomans during the Arab Revolt of 1916-18, and his leadership of the Arab Legion during World War II. Calligraphic Arabic script referencing Abdullah’s name appears in the lower left corner superimposed on the leader’s uniform.
In his careful rendering of Abdullah as a key political figure, Szyk finds ways to visually connect his subject with the Transjordan nation through distinct formal means. The national flag appears outside of the window, just behind Abdullah and in line with his gaze. The green, white, black and red striped flag echo the colors of Abdullah’s sash, his military medals, and the red hem of his turban. Red and green are also the predominant colors of the interior setting, creating an entirely unified aesthetic of national colors. In Szyk’s portrayal, Abdullah becomes an iconic symbol of Jordan as much as the flag he sits before.
While Szyk’s portrait was created prior to the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, his work anticipates one of the more promising relationships between Israeli and Arab nations in the late 1940s.
Abdullah had forged an unusual and complex political relationship with the emergent State of Israel beginning in the 1920s with his first encounters with the Zionist movement. Unlike his neighboring Arab partners, Abdullah sought a relationship with the Zionists in order to better secure the position of his own state in the region, and to later expand the size of the territory given to him by the British.
Before and during the war, Abdullah maintained direct yet covert lines of communication with Jewish parties in Palestine, and he was the only Arab ruler who supported the United Nation’s 1947 proposal to partition Palestine into one Jewish and one Arab state.
Although Abdullah ultimately sought territorial expansion that included an incorporated Palestine, his early relationship with the Zionists was mutually beneficial, ensuring both economic cooperation and political neutrality for both nations. This position remained deeply unpopular with the surrounding Arab states and caused significant damage to his reputation.
Facing increasing pressure from neighboring nations, Abdullah eventually joined the Arab military coalition of Egypt, Syria and Iraq, which initiated the Arab-Israeli War following Israel’s Declaration of Independence in May 1948. It was at this time that Szyk made several unflattering depictions of Abdullah, who maintained close ties with the British and Arab states for the duration of the conflict.
After 10 months of fighting, however, Abdullah resumed negotiations and peace talks with Israel, a diplomatic position that further stoked anti-Israeli sentiment by his constituents and neighboring states. In 1951, he was assassinated by a Palestinian Arab with ties to a Mandate-era opposition group.
Prior these events, Szyk’s portrait circulated in highly regarded art spaces in the early 1940s. The work was exhibited in 1941 at the Knoedler Gallery in New York, at that time one of the most prestigious art galleries in the world. The work appears in the exhibition press release as Emir Abdullah of Transjordania. Considering the wide and influential audience who visited the Knoedler Gallery, Szyk’s portrait potentially wielded great influence in shaping American views toward this Middle Eastern ally.
Records in Szyk’s scrapbook suggest that the artist aspired to have an even larger audience for this work. A reproduction of his portrait of Abdullah I appears in one of Szyk’s scrapbook leaves, below a cutout of a Time magazine masthead. In 1941, Szyk produced three cover images for Time, each featuring contemporary political figures, including Claude Wickard, who served as secretary of agriculture during the administration of presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman (July 21, 1941), Hubertus Van Mook, an important Dutch administrator in the East Indies (August 18, 1941), and Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the commander-in-chief of the Japanese Combined Fleet who ordered the attack on Pearl Harbor (December 22, 1941).
In Szyk’s records, his portrait of Abdullah I is pasted below the Time masthead, indicating that Szyk intended this work to appear alongside the three other published portraits. Whether the work was submitted remains unknown; however, his prominent placement underscores the significance Szyk placed on this ruler as an important ally and as a leader who effectively established political stability during the tumultuous years of World War II.
Szyk’s later rendering of the Jordanian king for Collier’s magazine (Political Faces, 1949) further signals Szyk’s esteem for an Arab partner who helped shape the global postwar landscape and establish more positive Arab-Israeli relations.
Samantha Lyons is an art historian living in northern California and works with Irvin Ungar, a Szyk scholar