Dec 14, 2021 Exhibitions The sea has played a pivotal role in American history, from settlement to enslavement to immigration. In her work The Immigrants (1923), currently on view in our newest temporary exhibition In American Waters: The Sea in American Painting, Polish immigrant Theresa Bernstein tells a story of immigrants on their journey to New York by sea. Artist Theresa Bernstein was born in Kraków, Poland, in 1890 before migrating to Philadelphia with her family at the age of two. In The Immigrants, Bernstein reflects upon and portrays her understanding of and compassion for the trials of immigrants coming to the United States. Set in the 1920s, Bernstein captures European immigrants socializing while on their maritime voyage to America. It’s said that this painting is a reimagination of her parents’ emigration from Poland. Art historians have argued that the baby being held in the arms of a woman in the focal point of the work represents Bernstein as a baby being carried by her mother, awaiting their fate in a new country full of promise and hope. Others believe the woman is Bernstein herself, holding her daughter who passed in 1920 at three months old. Bernstein is well-known for masking the personal elements of her works, allowing viewers to create their own interpretations. Theresa Bernstein, The Immigrants, 1923, oil on canvas, 40 x 50 in. Collection of Thomas and Karen Buckley. Image courtesy of Woodmere Art Museum. Bernstein painted The Immigrants at a time when immigration to the US was fairly low. In the 1920s, the US government passed legislations dramatically restricting immigration in large numbers. Legislations such as The Emergency Quota Act (1921) and The Immigration Act (1923) scaled back the number of immigrants into the country, largely discriminating against countries in southern and eastern Europe, Africa, Asia, and South America and favoring newcomers born in western Europe, Ireland, and Britain, preserving the American ideal of homogeneity. Anti-immigration sentiment of nativism was also rising among US citizens during this time. Bernstein’s The Immigrants serves as a reflection of and response to the effects immigration had on the changing political and social climate. Discover more stories of immigrants and their voyages by sea to the US in our newest temporary exhibition In American Waters: The Sea in American Painting, on view now until January 31, 2022. Written by Bridgette Bavon, Fall 2021 interpretation intern.