Moritz Daniel Oppenheim was a Jewish German painter and printmaker born in Hanau, Germany in 1800. He was considered the first Jewish painter since he was the first Jewish artist to gain acceptance in the non-Jewish German society. While many Jewish eighteenth and nineteenth century artists converted to Christianity in order to gain acceptance as artists in the modern world, Oppenheim remained an observant and dedicated Jew throughout his career and lifetime. He was the first artist in the nineteenth century to be outspoken about his strong Jewish identity while simultaneously working within the German non-Jewish sector.
Prior to the emancipation of European Jewry, Jewish artists had been confined within their ghettos, prohibited from classical art institutions and apprenticeships with master artists. A Jewish artist’s work could only reach as far as his community. Moritz Oppenheim became the first Jewish painter to receive classical artistic training and exposure to modern artistic movements. He was also the first to gain official recognition from the non-Jewish world.
Oppenheim became known in non-Jewish circles as a portraitist of prominent gentiles and Jews, work that earned him universal celebration. In his twenties, Oppenheim was already considered a successful portrait painter. He won numerous competitions and even met with Goethe, the leading figure of German culture. From the 1830s to the 1850s, Oppenheim was the official portraitist of the Rothschild family, thus he is sometimes referred to as the “Painter of the Rothschilds and the Rothschild of Painters.” He was also commissioned to paint the portraits of Kaiser Otto IV and Joseph II in 1839.
His later work explored the encounter between Jewish traditions and the modern world, as experienced by post-emancipation European Jewry. Much of Oppenheim’s work focuses on the depiction of Jewish culture, traditions and religion. But even more significantly, his art portrays the socio-political struggles of the Jewish community – the difficulties and conflict German Jews experienced as they tried to transform to emancipated and assimilated individuals while still holding onto their Jewish identities. Sentimental yearnings for the past as well as the anti-Semitic experiences of the present were also common themes in Oppenheim’s work, as he sought to find solutions to the German Jewish dilemma of the mid nineteenth century.
Through his work, Oppenheim tried to preserve and even embolden Jewish identity as well as to challenge the assumptions of his non-Jewish audience. To do so, the artist emphasized desirable aspects of Jewish life and culture. In several paintings depicting late eighteenth century pre-emancipation Jewish ghettos, Oppenheim portrays the ghettos as clean, warm and comfortable, defying the common conception that they were dirty and had uncomfortable living conditions. Jewish Heritage Online Magazine quotes Ismar Schorsch, who wrote: “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.”
Oppenheim carefully chose which aspects of Jewish life to focus upon in order to accomplish his own personal goals of painting Jews in a positive light for German audiences. Many of his paintings depict the Jewish family surrounded by books and immersed in learning, in an effort to combat the common stereotype that Jews were uncultured. The Jewish family is also often portrayed in Oppenheim’s paintings, in keeping with the value German society placed on it at the time and the belief that a strong family life bred morality. In illustrating Jewish religious practice and celebration, Oppenheim considered German views that these events were strange and objectionable in deciding what to depict and how.