This Day in Jewish History |

1882: The First Jewish Artist Germany Would Accept Dies

Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, painter of Rothschilds, was probably the first Jewish artist in Germany to gain acceptance without converting.

David Green
David B. Green
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
'Return of the Jewish Volunteer,' 1833-34
'Return of the Jewish Volunteer,' 1833-34Credit: Wikimedia Commons
David Green
David B. Green

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.

'Lavater and Lessing Visit Moses Mendelssohn' (1856)Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Moritz Daniel Oppenheim continued painting until just days before his death, in Frankfurt on this date in 1882.

Twitter: @davidbeegreen

Shavuot by J. Flax (1880)Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Oppenheim's 1814 self-portrait. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Click the alert icon to follow topics:



Automatic approval of subscriber comments.

Subscribe today and save 40%

Already signed up? LOG IN


Palestinians search through the rubble of a building in which Khaled Mansour, a top Islamic Jihad militant was killed following an Israeli airstrike in Rafah, southern Gaza strip, on Sunday.

Gazans Are Tired of Pointless Wars and Destruction, and Hamas Listens to Them

Trump and Netanyahu at the White House in Washington, in 2020.

Three Years Later, Israelis Find Out What Trump Really Thought of Netanyahu

German soldier.

The Rival Jewish Spies Who Almost Changed the Course of WWII

Rio. Not all Jewish men wear black hats.

What Does a Jew Look Like? The Brits Don't Seem to Know

Galon. “I’m coming to accomplish a specific mission: to increase Meretz’s strength and ensure that the party will not tread water around the electoral threshold. If Meretz will be large enough, it will be the basis for a Jewish-Arab partnership.” Daniel Tchetchik

'I Have No Illusions About Ending the Occupation, but the Government Needs the Left'

Soldiers using warfare devices made by the Israeli defense electronics company Elbit Systems.

Russia-Ukraine War Catapults Israeli Arms Industry to Global Stage