In Praise of Similarity and Difference: Portrayals of German Jews (Moritz Daniel Oppenheim (1800-1882), Part II)

Note:  With the exception of the first illustration below, the images in this post are borrowed from the wonderful book, Der Zyklus „Bilder aus dem altjüdischen Familienleben“ und sein Maler Moritz Daniel Oppenheim [The Series “Pictures of Old Jewish Family Life” and its Painter Moritz Daniel Oppenheim] by Ruth Dröse et al. (Hanau: Co-Con Verlag, 1996).

M Oppenheim + Adelheid Cleve 1829

Moritz Daniel Oppenheim and his first wife, Adelheid Cleve, 1829 (self portrait). Nothing in their dress or demeanor distinguishes them visually from others in Germany’s rising bourgeoisie of the period.

Minority groups in any society continually negotiate a balance between maintaining their distinct identity and fitting into the larger society in which they live.  In the United States, this negotiation has been repeatedly managed by immigrant groups, including Irish, Italian and Eastern Europeans in the 19th century and East and South Asians, Middle Easterners and myriad Latinos today.  Jews in Germany in the 1800s faced similar social negotiations. At the beginning of the century, Jewish mobility was tightly restricted and their lives were often segregated from the majority community.  A hundred years later, however, Jews were leaders in countless fields in Germany, including literature, the arts, science, the professions and business.  Prejudice and discrimination persisted, but the progress over the century was remarkable.

As German Jews entered the middle and educated classes, they faced the conundrum of maintaining their distinctive customs and beliefs while sharing the benefits and liberal values of participation in a broader, more diverse, modern society. In the second half of the 19th century, the domestic art of my great-great-great grandfather’s brother, Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, portrayed a credible balance between these competing objectives.  You can read a prior post about him here. His series depicting Jewish life became wildly popular.  They started as black-and-white paintings that were photographically converted to lithographs. The set sold thousands of copies in many editions.

Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, Freitag Abend [Friday Evening], 1867. The father returns from the synagogue for the Sabbath meal with his family.

Close family relations, benevolent gender roles, respectful children, education, hospitality, formal mealtimes, well-made but not opulent furnishings and clothing — these were all esteemed values of German middle class life when Moritz painted this illustration in 1867. He dressed the figures in clothing from a century earlier – perhaps suggesting that the Jewish exoticism pictured was explicable as an anachronism. The artistic style, however, is a mid-19th century domestic genre scene. Except for the figure on the right and the Sabbath lamp hanging over the table, this could be many idealized German homes of Oppenheim’s day. The father blesses his daughters while his wife nurses the baby.  Three boys stand respectfully; one holds a book while observing the Sabbath guest, a religious student in foreign dress.  The Sabbath bread lies under a napkin waiting for the family to sit and eat together. For both Jewish and Gentile audiences, this image  conveys strong nineteenth-century family values held in common by the majority and minority populations.

Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, Sabbat-Nachmittag [Sabbath Afternoon], (1866).  A Jewish family quietly observes the Day of Rest.

Aside from the males’ skullcaps and the Sabbath lamp in the center of the room, this illustration could be an idealized scene of Christian piety on a Sunday afternoon in the mid-1800s. It is, however, a Jewish home on a Saturday. While the father dozes, the sons and daughters read and study.  No doubt their books are religious or moral texts.  The good but not extravagant clothes and furnishings and the domestic tranquility convey that this is a gutbürgerlich, solid middle class, pious German home.

Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, Das Wochen- oder Pfingstfest [The Feast of Weeks, or Shavuot] 1880. The late spring festival features decorations of garlands and flowers.

Once in a while, Moritz Oppenheim would allow his illustrations of Jewish life to convey greater distinctiveness than others. In this portrayal of Shavuot, the men wear prayer shawls (Talit) and the central figure carries a richly decorated Torah.  The Gothic-arched windows of the synagogue and the tablets of the Ten Commandments over the door, however, would connote a religious environment familiar to German Christians of the time.  What this image has most in common with Christian illustrations of the time is the attentive, prayerful, eyes-upraised piety of all the participants, including children.

Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, Die Jahrzeit (Minjan) [Minyan], 1871. Jewish soldiers interrupt the war to observe Jahrzeit, the anniversary of the death of one of the soldiers’ father.

Jews showed their German patriotism by volunteering for the army in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871. In this scene, ten German-Jewish soldiers – officers and enlisted, infantry and medical corps, battle-ready and wounded – pause in the war to observe the anniversary of the death of the father of one of their number, the man third from right with a prayer shawl.  The place is a commandeered home in a French village. The crucifix hung on the back wall by the French family has been covered with a cloth for this occasion but remains part of the scene. French girls observe the unusual ceremony through the window.  The  message is one of German loyalty and communal piety, so the soldiers at prayer are simultaneously unified with and and yet different from German society as a whole.

Prof. M. Oppenheim, Bilder aus dem altjüdischen Familienleben [Pictures of Old Jewish Family Life], edition of 1872.

Prof. M. Oppenheim, Bilder aus dem altjüdischen Familienleben  [Pictures of Old Jewish Family Life], edition of 1901.

The first portfolio of Oppenheim’s lithographs with six images was published in 1866 and was followed by numerous later editions with additional plates.  Thousands of the sets were sold . The huge 1901 edition pictured, measuring nearly 2 feet by 3 feet, included 20 large prints.  Oppenheim’s lithographs, with their multilayered meanings, decorated Jewish homes across Europe for decades.  They can be seen at the Jewish Museum in New York and at the Philadelphia Museum of Jewish Art housed in the historic Rodeph Sholem Synagogue.

More stories about the Höber  family are in Against Time: Letters from Nazi Germany, 1938-1939, published by the American Philosophical Society. Information is available hereAlso available at

German edition, Deutsche auf der Flucht, ein Briefwechsel zwischen Deutschland und Amerika von 1938 bis 1938, available here.

This entire blog is available in book form. Send a note to the author through the comments section below.


Portraitist to the Rothschilds — Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, 1800-1882, Part I

Note:  The images in this post are borrowed from the wonderful reference book and catalogue raisonné , Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, Die Entdeckung des jüdischen Selbstbewußtseins in der Kunst [“The Discovery of Jewish Self-Awareness in Art”], edited by Georg Heuberger and Anton Merk, Jüdisches Museum Frankfurt am Main, 1999.

Moritz Oppenheim (1800-1882), Selbstbildnis, 1825.

One of the fascinating things about digging into my family’s history was to discover that before 1900, almost everyone on my father’s side of the family was Jewish.  My father was baptized and confirmed as a Protestant, as was his father, and my mother came from an entirely Protestant background,.  So it was only late in my life that I learned of my father’s Jewish roots.  My 5X great-grandfather, Lazarus Gumpel, sponsored the first Reformed synagogue in Hamburg, Germany around 1800.  Other family members were close with Abraham Geiger and Theodore Creizenach, among the founders of Reform Judaism in the early 19th century.

One of the interesting characters I discovered was my 3X great-grandfather’s brother, Moritz Oppenheim (1800-1882).  He was born in the confined ghetto in Hanau, near Frankfurt, to a wealthy family of jewelers and bankers.   He grew up to be called The First Jewish Painter. He showed his talent early, with this remarkable and quirky self-portrait when he was just 14 years old.

Moritz Daniel Oppenheim. Selbstbildnis, 1815.

Moritz discovered early that he could make a decent living painting religious scenes based on both Old and New Testament themes.  Many of these, however, bear the saccharine character of popular 19th century religious illustrations.  The slightly racy quality of this painting of Potiphar’s Wife (here trying to seduce Joseph) makes it more interesting than some in this genre:

Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, Joseph und das Weib von Potiphar, 1828.

I think Moritz really was at his best when he got into portraiture.  He had a wonderful capacity to capture the personalities of interesting people.  I love this painting of my great-great-aunt, Bernhardine Friedeberg (1822-1873), which captures not just her beauty but her intelligence and determination:

Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, Bernhardine Friedeberg, 1846.

Good portraits were a sign of status and taste in Europe and America in the 19th century, and Moritz’s skills eventually came to the attention of the Rothschild banking family, then legendary as one of the wealthiest families in the world.  In 1836, the Rothschilds commissioned him to paint portraits of the five brothers who dominated banking in Europe as well as other Rothschild relatives. The brilliance of the paintings and the fame of their subjects made Oppenheim himself famous.

Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, Carl Mayer von Rothschild, 1850.


Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, Nathan Mayer Rothschild, 1853.

The Rothschild commissions opened doors to other clients, and Moritz was appointed to paint portraits of the greatest literary figures of his time, including the romantic poet Heinrich Heine and the political commentator Ludwig Börne. Working from earlier sketches, in 1864 he also created a painting of Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, at 21 the most famous composer in Europe, playing piano for Wolfgang von Goethe in 1830.

Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, Ludwig Börne, 1833.

Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, Heinrich Heine, 1831.

Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy spielt vor Goethe, 1864.

I previously wrote a post about my artist great-grandmother, Marie Höber, here. Moritz Oppenheim was her great-uncle, and Marie treasured a letter she received from him praising her miniatures on ivory. The letter from Uncle Moritz, with its handsomely addressed envelope, is preserved in my family’s papers.

Letter from Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, in Frankfurt, to his great-niece, Marie Höber, in Berlin, June 17, 1871. Envelope below.

Moritz Daniel Oppenheim dictated his memoirs shortly before his death at the age of 82, but they wouldn’t be published until his grandson edited them 42 years later.

Moritz Oppenheim Erinnerungen (Memoirs), edited by his grandson, Alfred Oppenheim, 1924.

By the time he was in his sixties, Oppenheim was highly successful and known throughout Europe.  And yet his greatest fame and popularity was yet to come with the publication of an extraordinary series of lithographs providing a particular portrayal of Jews as they fit into the contentious social and political world of Oppenheim’s times.  This series will be the subject of Part 2 of this post, coming soon.

More stories about the Höber  family are in Against Time: Letters from Nazi Germany, 1938-1939, published by the American Philosophical Society. Information is available hereAlso available at

German edition, Deutsche auf der Flucht, ein Briefwechsel zwischen Deutschland und Amerika von 1938 bis 1938, available here.

This entire blog is available in book form. Send a note to the author through the comments section below.


Returned Home after 160 Years

The jaunty fellow pictured below has returned to his family — to me — after an absence of more than a century and a half.  He was drawn in charcoal and pencil by my great-great grandmother, Amalia Höber, née Oppenheim.  Based on his clothing and what I know about Amalia, I believe Amalia drew him between 1840 and 1850.  I wonder where he traveled during the strife and wars in Europe since then — the Franco-Prussian War, World Wars I and II and the Cold War.  What I do know is that he popped up for sale over the internet recently, and my dear friend Achim in Dresden spotted him.  The seller, a small-scale dealer in drawings and paintings living in Bonn, bought him at auction in southern Germany.  She had little information about his origins, but Amalia’s signature on the drawing is perfectly clear. Given the unusual name and the period in which it was drawn, I have no doubt of its authenticity.  I do wish I knew who the man in the drawing is.

Amalia Höber, drawing of a young man in a tailcoat, c. 1840-1855 , charcoal on paper, 32x26 cm (12 1/2" x 10 1/4").

Amalia Höber, drawing of a young man in a tailcoat, c. 1840-1850 , charcoal on paper, 32×26 cm (12 1/2″ x 10 1/4″).

Amalia (1817-1895) was the daughter of Simon Daniel Oppenheim, a jeweler and financier from Hanau, near Frankfurt.  She married my great-great grandfather Eduard  in 1839.   He died ten years later at the young age of 45, leaving the Amalia with three sons and two daughters, all under the age of ten.  Eduard left her a fair sum of money, however, and her father and brothers also helped to support her.

Portraits of Eduard Höber and Amalia Oppenheim Höber around the time of their marriage in 1839.  Miniature paintings by their daughter, Marie, copied from larger oil portraits (lost) in the 1860s.

Portraits of Eduard Höber and Amalia Oppenheim Höber around the time of their marriage in 1839. Miniature paintings by their daughter, Marie, copied from larger oil portraits (now lost) in the 1860s.

Until I saw this excellent drawing of the young man, I didn’t know that Amalia was an artist.  I knew, however, that her uncle Moritz Daniel Oppenheim was a famous painter and that her daughter, Marie Höber, was an accomplished miniaturist.  The predilection for portraiture seems to have run in the family.

The drawing of the young man in the tailcoat was initially offered for sale at more than I could pay.  After some email exchanges facilitated by my friend Achim, however, we were able to agree on a manageable price.  You may imagine that the day the package containing Amalia’s drawing arrived here in Philadelphia recently was pretty moving.  I am delighted to have the young man back home.

Amalia Höber's drawing arrives in Philadelphia, December 20, 2013

Amalia Höber’s drawing arrives in Philadelphia, December 20, 2013