Portraits by American-Polish artist Irena Baruch Wiley (1906-72)
Irena Baruch Wiley’s portraits are a visual record of the people she encountered in the various countries in which she lived. Her work evokes a feeling of empathy for the human condition, and offers a rarefied glimpse into a long forgotten world of international intrigue.
Irena Baruch Wiley´s husband John was a U.S. Ambassador whose career spanned nearly three decades and carried him and Irena to diverse postings around the globe including the first U.S. Embassy in Moscow, Vienna during Hitler’s Anschluss, Estonia and Latvia during the Soviet takeover, and Tehran at the beginning of the last Shah’s reign.
Wiley chose to share her adventures by writing “Around the World in 20Years,” which she published after retiring to Georgetown in 1962.
As the Wileys had no children, they invited their niece, Barbara Fendrick, now a retired D.C. art dealer, to live with them in several of their homes abroad, including Lisbon, Tehran and Berlin. “They introduced me to Europe, and opened my eyes to the rest of the world,” Fendrick said.
Irena Wiley’s travels also opened her own eyes to the world. After she married John, the couple’s first home was in Moscow, where John was one of the first diplomats stationed there after the Russian Revolution. The couple was later posted to Austria in 1938, when it was annexed by Germany at the beginning of World War II. Unsettled by the situation, Irena Wiley was instrumental in helping many Austrians escape to the United States.
“If the hopeless visa applicant was a painter, a sculptor, a musician, he would be sent directly to me,” Wiley wrote in her memoir. “Then with the help of the Quakers, the Jewish Joint Relief or other diplomatic missions, and of many private citizens, I would try to get the required visas, visas for any place of refuge in the outside world.” She would later do the same in Estonia and Latvia, where she even helped the president’s wife escape before the Soviet occupation. “They ended up helping thousands,” Fendrick said. “They really went overboard to help.”