Commentary Magazine


Cedars of Lebanon: The Rothschild of the Painters

One chapter from Moritz Daniel Oppenheim’s Erinnerungen, translated by me from the German original, has already appeared in this department, in the October 1954 number. The present selection from the same book (written about 1880, shortly before the artist’s death, but published only in 1924) describes the Jewish painter’s rise to fame. After four years of study in France and Italy, Oppenheim, at the age of twenty-five, returned to Frankfort on the Main in May 1825.

Some of the dramatis personae in his memoirs are of historical interest. Moritz von Bethmann is an ancestor of that Bethmann-Hollweg who served as German chancellor from 1909 to 1917. “Uncle Amschel” is Amschel Mayer von Rothschild (1773-1855), the eldest of the five sons of the founder of the Rothschild dynasty. Anselm von Rothschild (1803-1874), the only son of Solomon Mayer von Rothschild, another of the famous “five,” was, like his wife Charlotte, an art collector. The Naples branch of the Rothschild firm was founded by Carl Mayer Rothschild (1788-1855). “Rachel” was the stage name of the celebrated French Jewish actress, Elisa Rachel Felix (1820-1858). Marcus Koenigswarter was one of five brothers (sons of Jonas Koenigswarter) who founded important banking houses in Frankfort and elsewhere. Gabriel Riesser (1806-1863), himself a Jew, was a champion of Jewish emancipation, and in 1848 a deputy to the German National Assembly; he was elected a vice president of the Assembly (not president, as Oppenheim erroneously recalls). The painter Philipp Veit (1793-1877) was the son of Dorothea Mendelssohn—daughter of the Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn—by a first marriage. Her second husband was the writer Friedrich von Schlegel, who had Philipp baptized. Both Dorothea and Philipp were practicing Catholics, and the latter became a leader of the “Nazarenes, “a group of German painters who turned to the “Christian purity” of the Middle Ages. Salomon Stiebel (1792-1868), who became a convert to Christianity, was a leading Frankfort physician, and Privy Councillor to the Duke of Nassau.Alfred Werner

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The patricians of Frankfort called on me. Moritz von Bethmann (the father), Jean Noé Dufay, and others came . . . and commissioned pictures. The wife of the Elector of Hesse also favored me with a visit and later wrote me a very gracious letter. All this recognition brought me honor, and numerous commissions. Particularly, I did many portraits for the wealthiest Jewish families, and was well paid for them. I painted some lovely Jewish maidens and exhibited their portraits at the “Museum” (out of which grew the present Museum Society), and received the diploma of honorary membership, a distinction which up to then had not been bestowed upon any Jew.

Later, the Rothschild family gave me a lot of work to do. The branch that had been in Naples resettled here, and established a princely household, as did Baron Anselm and his art-loving wife, Charlotte. I was invited to the most distinguished and dazzling social gatherings. . . . The Baroness Charlotte asked me whether I would give her instruction. I replied that it was not my practice to give instruction, but I was at her service, gladly and wholly. She noticed the haughtiness that came through these words, and said: “Baron Gérard has also taught me, and I paid him a louis d’or for each lesson.” This annoyed me a little, but I only repeated that I was entirely at her service. . . . That she was very satisfied with her teacher was shown by her frequent visits to my studio, and her amiable little letters to me in French. . . . She also had me decorate the cupola of her house. I decorated the eight panels with mythological subjects, presenting her as Psyche, without saying anything to her. She quickly noticed it. I also composed poems for her on special occasions.

But the culmination of my instruction came when she illustrated the Haggadah for her Uncle Amschel. I made the designs for the subjects, and she carried them out in the style of the old missals. . . . For this, she procured . . . from the Paris Library manuscripts with illuminated miniatures. The best Jewish calligrapher of the day, Messeritz, inscribed the text, and the book certainly cost the Baroness several thousand gulden. I came to be known as “painter of the Rothschilds,” and “Rothschild of the painters.”

At that time the Deutsche Bundestag [German National Assembly] was at its height, and all the delegates, with their staffs, often gathered . . . at the home of Baron Anselm von Rothschild . . . [which was] full of the rarest objets d’art . The only thing missing was . . . good pictures, and I succeeded in acquiring for the Baroness the famous collection of Herr de Reus of The Hague: the required sum, about 100,000 florins, was immediately allowed to her by her consort. Indeed . . . the Herr Baron . . . granted his wife any sum of money she asked for. Once, when she wanted 2,000 florins from the cashier of the House of Rothschild, by mistake she wrote one extra zero: 20,000 florins. The cashier thought he ought first to ask the Baron for authorization to pay out this unusually large sum, but the Baron reproved him angrily: “You need not come to me in such a case; whatever, as much as, my wife asks, give her immediately.” So it happened that a wheelbarrow laden with twenty sacks of gold was sent to her, the sight of which amazed her, naturally.

I remember especially . . . certain celebrations at the Rothschild home . . . [one] in honor of the famous actress Rachel. . . . Everyone was eager . . . to be presented to her. I kept modestly in the background. Baron Anselm noticed it and he took me by the arm and led me to her. I shall never forget the fine, noble, poetic appearance of this artist, and her diction (she recited a scene from [Racine's] Esther) . Another evening, tableaux were given. I had been entrusted with the arrangements for them . . . and the most beautiful, the wealthiest young people placed themselves at my disposal. . . . No less a man than Minister Blittersdorf assisted me at rehearsals and at the performance. The next day Baron Anselm cut me in on two hundred 40-Taler kurhessian shares which yielded me a substantial profit. My circumstances improved greatly, and . . . I was able to repay my brother Simon . . . all he had loaned me during my student years.

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I married the good, devout Adelheid Cleve, who had remained loyal to me notwithstanding all the difficulties created by her grandmother who opposed the match. My beloved Adelheid pleased everyone—she was pretty, had very interesting features, and at the same time was charming and amiable.

Once, when we were at a party at Marcus Koenigswarter’s, he introduced me to several officers, saying: “Herr Professor Oppenheim is a painter, but, praise God, he doesn’t need to be.” These words, curiously enough, became known all over Germany and made me more famous than my pictures did. . . .

To my friendship with Dr. Gabriel Riesser I owe many happy experiences. [His] triumphs, which . . . culminated in his election as president of the parliament, gave me the greatest joy. I was and remain proud of this great man’s friendship and love for me. How witty and affectionate was the biography he wrote of me! When he asked me for facts, I said: “A good cook can make even a leather glove appetizing with a good sauce!”—and how skilled Riesser was at making a piquant sauce!

A good many scholars and artists used to get together every fortnight at old Juegel’s home. The name of this club was Hanswurstika (Buffoonery). At the gay [club] suppers . . . my own humorous verse, composed for the occasion, met with enthusiasm, especially at one celebration which the club gave for the Juegel family. My ditties were sung over and over. . . .

I valued the artist in Philipp Veit, and in spite of everything I was fond of the man himself. When he came to Frankfort to be director of the Staedel Institute, he moved into a very modest dwelling on the Grosse Gallusgasse. I frequently spent the evening in his family circle. His mother, Dorothea von Schlegel, lived with them; when her grandchildren . . . came to wish her good night, she gave them her blessing with the sign of the cross; this coming from the daughter of Moses Mendelssohn made a painful impression on me. As ostentatiously pious as was the mother in the expression of her Catholicism, so undemonstrative were her certainly no less pious children. Veit talked to me neither about his Jewish origin nor of his later Catholic faith. Except once when we met at the Roeder confectionery, and I made the remark that when I ate ice cream I often thought of his grandfather: he was said to have liked sugar so much that he was sorry he “could not eat sugar with sugar”; at this, Veit started to talk about a picture I was then working on, which represented the famous episode, “Lavater’s Visit to Moses Mendelssohn.” Lavater tries to convert Mendelssohn, and demands, in fact, that Mendelssohn either yield and be baptized or publicly set forth his objections. Veit admitted that he was not familiar with this episode from his grandfather’s life, and I told him how . . . embarrassing the situation had been for Mendelssohn, and how he had grieved about the fact that he could not speak up. . . . Only to the Duke of Braunschweig, who pleaded with him, did he reveal his objections. Veit sighed and said: “Who knows how much he has to suffer for it now!” [i.e. in Hell]. Apart from this, Veit was a rather clever man.

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About that time Heinrich Heine came to Frankfort; he had already made a name for himself . . . especially through his Travel Sketches, whose jokes struck their most responsive chords in Jewish circles. . . . I painted him and later he wrote me from Paris that I should send this portrait to his publisher Campe, which I did. Heine was my guest one midday, on a Saturday. I had also invited some of his admirers and, to please him, had had prepared for him a typical Jewish meal, Kuchel and Schalet [kugel and tcholent], which Heine ate heartily. I remarked jokingly that this kind of food must make him feel homesick. . . . The talk then turned to his baptism; one of the guests asked what had made him do it. . . . Heine answered evasively that he “found it harder to have a tooth pulled than to change his religion.”

[Writing later] of his visit to Frankfort, Heine speaks of the good Sabbath meal he ate at the home of the future Privy Councillor Stiebel. Now of course he remembered quite well that he had eaten that Sabbath meal [elsewhere]. . . . No doubt he was maliciously trying to provoke the newly baptized Jew by connecting him up with such an Old Testament cuisine. I saw when I talked with Dr. Stiebel about it, that Heine’s needle-jab had not missed its mark.

Shortly before the July Revolution [of 1830] I also painted Boerne’s portrait, which now hangs in the Staedel Gallery at Frankfort: Boerne wrapped up his fee to me in a few witty lines . . . “There is a curse in money; thank me for cursing you so moderately.” . . .

Later, I had the portraits of Boerne and Heine lithographed, and they were published as a set by the art and book dealer Koenig, in Hanover.

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