Moritz Oppenheim - Pictures from Traditional Jewish Family Life

Oppenheim's 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 Germany.[1] The images were also mass marketed as postcards and pewter or porcelain plates.

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.

The 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.

Oppenheim's Pictures 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.

Here are several elements of Jewish life and religion that Oppenheim depicted in the series, and the issues involved in each.

Henoch enters while Mine says the Hallel prayers with two young girls, 1876
enlargement & commentary

The Ghetto: Several of the Pictures paintings take place on the streets of the pre-emancipation [2] 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:

"Oppenheim's 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."[3]

Jewish 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.[4]

Jewish 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.

Sabbath Eve, 1867
enlargement & commentary

Die Trauung (The Wedding), 1866
enlargement & commentary

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 transaction.

The 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,

"Oppenheim's traditional 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."[5]

Just 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.[6]. 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.


[1] 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. [back]

[2] 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. [back]

[3] Schorsch, p. 51.[back]

[4] Schorsch, p. 40. [back]

[5] Schorsch, p. 44. [back]

[6] 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. [back]


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).



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