On February 26, 1882, the German-Jewish painter Moritz Daniel Oppenheim died, at the age of 82. Oppenheim was probably the first Jewish artist in Germany to gain acceptance, and have commercial success in the wider Gentile society without converting. In this way he was similar to his patrons, the Rothschild family, many members of which he depicted in portraits.
Moritz Daniel Oppenheim was born into a traditional Jewish family on January 7, 1800, in Hanau, Germany, just outside Frankfurt. After studying art privately in his hometown, at age 17, Oppenheim entered the Munich Academy of Arts. That was followed by a brief sojourn in Paris, and then four years in Rome. There, Oppenheim spent time with artists associated with the Nazarene movement – devout Christians who created artwork depicting scenes from the Bible, and doing such work himself. He also spent time in the city’s ghetto, observing the life of traditional Jews for future planned works.
Back in Germany, Oppenheim settled in 1825 in Frankfort, which remained his home for the rest of his life. His acquaintance with members of the Rothschild clan began in the 1820s, and his portraits of Rothschilds ranged from 1821 (when he first met with Carl Rothschild in Naples) until approximately 1860. His works included official portraits of the five sons of Mayer Amschel Rothschild, from 1836 on, as well as many other less formal works of family members, many with Jewish content. The latter include two wedding portraits from 1836 of Lionel Nathan de Rothschild and his bride, and cousin, Charlotte. Oppenheim, who was paid well for his portraiture, was often called “the painter of the Rothschilds, and the Rothschild of painters.”
One of Oppenheim’s best-known works is the 1833-34 “Return of the Volunteer,” which depicts a Jewish soldier in the Wars of Liberation against Napoleon who has come home to visit his traditional family despite the fact that it is the Sabbath. Beginning in the 1860s, Oppenheim also painted a popular series of 20 works, “Scenes from Traditional Jewish Life,” genre paintings later redone in lithograph – so that they could be reproduced in albums - depicting Jewish holidays and life-cycle events.
Aware that he could help shape non-Jews’ images of Jewish life, Oppenheim presented life in the ghetto in idealized terms, airbrushing out, as it were, the crowding and lack of cleanliness. His Jewish works were also popular among emancipated, middle-class Jews, who could hang them on their walls as nostalgic reminders of the traditions they themselves might no longer be observing.
Two noteworthy works are the 1856 “Lavater and Lessing Visit Moses Mendelssohn” and “The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara” (1862). The first portrays a three-way meeting that never took place, between the Jewish thinker Mendelssohn and two important Christian figures, Johann Christian Lavater and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. The first famously attempted, and failed, to convert Mendelssohn; the latter, author of the play “Nathan the Wise,” was sympathetic and accepting of Jews. The 1862 painting depicts Oppenheim’s vision of the taking by the Church of a Jewish boy from his family because of a servant girl’s claim that she had had him baptized as an infant. The real case, from 1858, became an international cause célèbre. The painting only showed up recently, and was sold to a private collector at Sotheby’s this past December – for more than $400,000.
Moritz Daniel Oppenheim continued painting until just days before his death, in Frankfurt on this date in 1882.
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