JHOM - Moritz Oppenheim - Jewish Genre Painting

Portrait of Charlotte von Rothschild
enlargement & commentary

One of the most successful Jewish artists in 19th century Europe, Moritz Oppenheim (Germany, 1800-1882) painted in several different styles during the course of his long life. Early on, during a four-year stay in Rome and Naples, he depicted scenes from the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. Upon returning to Frankfurt, he focused on portraiture in the traditional nineteenth-century bourgeois style, in which anecdotal elements showed the subject's demeanor and portrayed aspects of his personality. His most loyal patrons were the Rothschilds, the family of financiers and philanthropists, patrons of the arts and sciences who greatly contributed to Jewish causes; Oppenheim became known as "painter of the Rothschilds" and — on account of his financial success — as "the Rothschild of the painters." The private portraits that the Rothschilds commissioned between the 1820s and 1850s, gradually became more formal. In addition to portraits, pencil sketches and oils, Oppenheim produced a famous series of Jewish genre paintings.

The term "genre" is used to describe an artwork that depicts a scene from everyday life. It refers to art from many different periods and many different places. The Dutch and Flemish painters were masters of this style and transformed it into the realm of acceptable, and even the great. But from antiquity until the middle ages, genre painting was looked down upon as not sufficiently serious because its subject matter was not allegorical, religious, or historical. Even today, genre painting - while delightful, entertaining and easy to relate to - is not considered high status.

During the nineteenth century, genre painting in Europe became popular among the bourgeoisie; their tastes were conventional and they were comfortable hanging on their walls that art which presented aspects of real life to which they could relate. In the Jewish community, genre painting was especially popular among emancipated Jews.

As restrictions on Jewish activity was lifted and Jews began to live more peaceably among their gentile neighbors, many chose to leave their religious tradition and customs behind. Jewish genre art, with its depictions of Jewish celebrations and worship, provided these Jews with a reminder of their religious heritage and satisfied a craving for nostalgia. As middle-class Jews developed a growing appreciation of art — buying and putting it on their walls — they sought art with a "Jewish motif," for lack of a Jewish painting tradition. Newly integrated in European society, they were not yet familiar with the treasure troves of art that could be viewed in museums and churches.

Felix Mendelssohn-
Bartholdy plays for Goethe, 1864.

Oppenheim's series Pictures of Traditional Jewish Family Life, which includes 20 paintings, is perhaps the most well-known example of Jewish genre painting. Published in an album in 1865, Bilder aus dem altjuedischen Familienleben appeared a year later in the United States as Family Scenes from Jewish Life of Former Days. Realistic yet tinged with romanticism, these scenes show excellent composition, and real skill in the grouping of the dramatis personae; they have been frequently reproduced to illustrate books on Jewish topics. Oppenheim also produced a series of large pictures on confrontations between Jews and Christians, e.g., Moses Mendelssohn and Lavater, Mendelssohn and King Frederick the Great. [*]

Beginning with Rembrandt, Jewish features were seriously rendered instead of caricatured, and the nineteenth-century Jewish painters such as Oppenheim, took this a step farther with both portraiture and genre painting.




Ismar 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).

Cecil Roth, ed. Jewish Art: An Illustrated History (New York: McGraw Hill Book Company, Inc., 1961).

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).

Gabrielle Sed-Rajna. Jewish Art (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1997).

Weber, 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.

Encyclopedia Judaica (Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House, Ltd., 1971).

[*] Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786), was a philosopher of the German Enlightenment in the pre-Kantian period and spiritual leader of German Jewry; Johann Caspar Lavater was a Lutheran theologian from Berlin. [back]






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