Moritz Oppenheim - Pictures from Traditional Jewish Family Life
famed series, Pictures of Traditional Jewish Family Life,
which portrayed different stages of the Jewish lifecycle, consisted
of twenty paintings and twenty "grisailles" or black and white
copies of the paintings. The grisailles were used to print lithographs
for a picture portfolio and a book.
Many portfolio editions and four bound editions were published
between 1866-1881, making Pictures of Traditional Jewish Family
Life perhaps the most popular Jewish book ever published in
The images were also mass marketed as postcards and pewter or
Many Jewish artists
converted to Christianity during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries
as a way to ease their professional lives and improve their prospects
for success. Moritz Daniel Oppenheim was a notable exception. Brought
up in an observant home in Hanau, Germany, he remained all his life an
observant man who took pride in being a Jew.
emancipated German Jews of Oppenheim's nineteenth-century Germany faced
criticism, and deeply ingrained prejudices and stereotypes from the German
gentile population. As a result, they themselves became self-critical,
and they questioned the necessity of - and in many
cases - discarded their tradition and religion.
of Traditional Jewish Family Life addressed their quandary by depicting
Jewish life and religion prudently and tastefully, keeping sensitive issues
in mind, and offering Jews a sense of pride in themselves and their religious
tradition. Meanwhile, the scenes in these paintings challenged the negative
assumptions held by Oppenheim's gentile audience.
are several elements of Jewish life and religion that Oppenheim depicted
in the series, and the issues involved in each.
Ghetto: Several of the Pictures paintings take place
on the streets of the pre-emancipation 
Jewish ghetto (Oppenheim set all of the scenes in the series at the end
of the eighteenth century). In these paintings the ghetto, commonly known
to have been a dismal place, was transformed. Oppenheim's ghetto streets
are clean and emanate warmth and comfort. The ghetto is viewed not as
a place to where gentiles banished the Jewish population, but as a place
where Jews intentionally took refuge from daily life in gentile society.
In his respected and frequently cited essay on Oppenheim's Pictures,
Ismar Schorsch puts it this way:
ghettos did not loom as the embodiment of Jewish cultural inferiority,
social backwardness, economic sterility, and moral depravity as contended
so vehemently by the early opponents of emancipation and the Maskilim.
. . . Oppenheim painted the ghetto as a refuge of civility and sanctity
in an uncivilized world, an oasis in which the Jew, forced to seek his
livelihood in hostile terrain, returned to restore body and soul."
Learning: Many of the paintings
in the series depict living rooms lined with shelves of books, emphasizing
the importance of study in Jewish worship and religious life and portraying
Jews as a people imbued with a love of learning. Women are depicted reading
from prayer anthologies. Men study and pray from sacred books. By stressing
literacy, these images countered a stereotype
that the Jew was uncultured.
Unity: Several paintings from the series included symbols of
Jewish solidarity and unity at a time when the emancipated Jews were separating
themselves from Jews that had not yet emerged from a traditional way of
life that had not changed since Medieval times. The Polish guest, for
example, appears in several of the Pictures paintings. Oppenheim's
use of the charity box for the Holy Land is another example.
Jewish religious practice and celebrations: Jewish worship and
ceremony were perceived as strange and foreign, and were frequently subjected
to stereotype and belittlement. Oppenheim took into account these interpretations,
carefully considering what to portray and how. His Circumcision takes
place before the baby's arrival on the scene, thereby avoiding the portrayal
of medical procedure, which German Christians considered repugnant. Oppenheim
locates the painting's scene inside the synagogue, showing circumcision's
role as a religious initiation defining the male baby as a member of the
Jewish people. Along the same lines, Oppenheim was careful
to portray the wedding as a religious event, countering gentile stereotypes
of the Jewish wedding as a civic ceremony performed to conclude a business
Jewish family: Thirteen out of twenty of the Pictures
scenes take place in a family setting revolving around the wife and mother.
This choice was based partly on the family's importance in Jewish life
and tradition, and partly on contemporary German taste and values that
prized family life. The visibility of the family in the paintings was
calculated to appeal to German society and to counter derogatory views
of Jewish morality. Professor Schorsch comments,
family exemplified the loftiness of Jewish morality. In a variety of
settings, he demonstrated the sanctity and wholesomeness of matrimony
in Judaism, grounded in religious commitment and governed by mutual
respect and affection."
as he presented the best parts of Jewish life and sometimes even "'retouched"
it, Oppenheim, unlike many contemporary Jewish painters, avoided depictions
of the ill, of funerals and burials, of pogroms..
It is interesting to note that, in a series of paintings revolving around
the Jewish festivals and lifecycle, Oppenheim chose not to depict the
darkest and most mournfully observed day of the Jewish year: the commemoration
of the Temple's destruction, Tish'a be'Av.
Schorsch, Ismar. "Art as Social History: Oppenheim and the German
Jewish Vision of Emancipation." In: Moritz Oppenheim (Catalog
of an exhibition at the Israel Museum, Fall, 1983). Copyright ?
1983 The Israel Museum (Jerusalem: Ben-Zvi Printing Enterprises,
Ltd.), p. 31.
 The term emancipation refers to the process
Jews underwent as they gradually became recognized as citizens of
the countries in which they lived, gained rights of citizenship,
and overcame many of the societal prejudices and antipathies against
them. This process took place during the time period 1740-1933 and
was achieved through social change, political conflict, and newly
emerging liberal philosophies of statehood. Emancipated Jews gradually
joined and assimilated with the societies and culture of the countries
where they lived. The Jews of Germany had completed much of the
emancipation process by Oppenheim's time.
Schorsch, p. 51.
Schorsch, p. 44.
Alfred Werner. "Oppenheim and Kaufmann: Fine Genre Painters." In:
Families & Feasts: Paintings by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim and
Isidor Kaufmann (Catalog of an exhibition at Yeshiva University
Museum April 24 - June 19, 1977), p. 9.
Schorsch. "Art as Social History: Oppenheim and the German Jewish
Vision of Emancipation." In: Moritz Oppenheim (Catalog of
an exhibition at the Israel Museum, Fall, 1983) (Jerusalem: Ben-Zvi
Printing Enterprises, Ltd., 1983).
Roth, ed. Jewish Art: An Illustrated History (New York: McGraw
Hill Book Company, Inc., 1961).
Werner. "Oppenheim and Kaufmann: Fine Genre Painters." In Families
& Feasts: Paintings by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim and Isidor Kaufmann
(catalog of an exhibition at Yeshiva University Museum April 24
- June 19, 1977).
Sed-Rajna. Jewish Art (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1997).
Annette. "Moritz Daniel Oppenheim and the Rothschilds" in Heuberger,
Georg and Anton Merk, eds. Moritz Daniel Oppenheim: Jewish Identity
in 19th Century Art (Catalog of an exhibition at the J?disches
Museum, Frankfurt, December 16 1999-April 2, 2000). Copyright ?
1999 Wienand Verlag, J?disches Museum, Frankfurt.
Judaica (Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House, Ltd., 1971).