Moritz Daniel Oppenheim

Moritz Daniel Oppenheim(1800 Hanau - Frankfurt am Main 1882)

David Playing the Harp for Saul, Rome 1823

Oil on canvas,73 x 100 cm
Signed lower left and inscribed Roma 1823, 

Provenance:
Carl Mayer von Rothschild (1788 - 1855), Naples and Frankfurt
Private collection, France

Literature:
Verzeichnis der Gemälde Frankfurter Künstler zur Herbstmesse 1827, exhib. cat., Frankfurt am Main, Katharinenkloster, 1827, no. 340 b

Ferdinand Hiller, Erinnerungsblätter, Cologne, 1884, p. 122
Friedrich von Bötticher, Malerwerke des neunzehnten Jahrhunderts, (first pub. Dresden, 1891-1901) repr., Hofheim, 1974, II (i), p. 186, no. 25
Georg Heuberger, Anton Merk, Moritz Daniel Oppenheim. Die Entdeckung des jüdischen Selbstbewußtseins in der Kunst, exhib. cat., Frankfurt am Main, Jüdisches Museum, 1999-2000 (Cologne: Wienand, 1999), p. 350, I.32 (catalogued as ‘whereabouts unknown’)

 

Moritz Daniel Oppenheim was born in the Judengasse in Hanau in 1800, the son of a merchant and the youngest of six children. At the early age of ten he attended classes at the drawing academy in Hanau. He studied at the Munich Kunstakademie from 1817 to 1819 and later completed his studies under Jean Baptiste Regnault in Paris. At this stage in his career he was painting portraits but had embarked on his first history paintings. He was already receiving commissions from members of the Rothschild banking family in Frankfurt. His portrait of James de Rothschild is dated 1821.[6] Later in the same year the House of Rothschild allowed him to accompany their courier to Rome. A four-year stay in Italy followed, with visits to Livorno, Pisa, Lucca, Assisi, Florence, the Campagna and Naples. Among the many German artists in Rome, he was closest to the celebrated landscape painter Joseph Anton Koch, to Friedrich Müller and Joseph von Hempel. He shared a room with Hempel in the famous Cafe Greco.[7]

Baron Carl Mayer von Rothschild, head of the Rothschild Bank in Naples, strongly encouraged the young artist. As Oppenheim states in his Erinnerungen: ‘Although the Baron was very careful with money, he nevertheless saw it as his duty to consider me, a young Jewish artist of whom he had heard good reports, his protégé.’[8] Rothschild purchased the first three paintings Oppenheim completed in Rome and commissioned a further painting to be titled Susanna im Bade (Susanna and the Elders). The painting was a public success and the local newspapers described it as a gioiella [sic! jewel]. Bertel Thorvaldsen, the celebrated sculptor and one of the mentors to German artists in Rome, also took an interest in Oppenheim and purchased his Rückkehr des jungen Tobias (The Return of the Young Tobias) painted in Florence in 1823. Thorvaldsen was also later to defend him when the first prize he had won in a drawing competition at the Accademia di San Luca was disallowed because he was Jewish. Thorvaldsen used his influence with the jurors to ensure that no prize was awarded at all.

Oppenheim’s contacts with leading contemporary painters like Friedrich Overbeck, Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld and Peter von Cornelius greatly influenced his artistic development. Entry into high society in Rome enabled him to meet the collectors and patrons who were to give him generous commissions.

He returned to Germany in 1825 and settled in Frankfurt where he quickly established himself as a highly sought-after portraitist. He met Goethe in Weimar in 1827. Goethe was later instrumental in obtaining the title of professor for him. He executed portraits of a large number of important public figures like Ludwig Börne, Heinrich Heine and Mendelssohn’s sister, Fanny Hensel-Mendelssohn. He travelled extensively in Europe and was also active as an art dealer acting on behalf of the Rothschilds. He acquired, for example, the celebrated de Reus Collection in The Hague for Anselm von Rothschild. In the 1850s he completed a group of paintings which was to serve as the basis for the portfolio titled Bilder aus dem altjüdischen Familienleben (Scenes from Traditional Jewish Family Life). Oppenheim was, as Georg Heuberger puts it, ‘the first truly popular Jewish artist in Germany during his lifetime’.[9]

The present painting is one of the major works Oppenheim executed during his sojourn in Italy. It depicts a scene described in the First Book of Samuel. King Saul is envious of David’s popularity and military success and senses his own impending fall from power. He is grasping a spear with which he will twice seek to take David’s life. David is unaware of the danger. ‘And it came to pass, when the evil spirit from God was upon Saul, that David took an harp and played with his hand: so Saul was refreshed, and was well, and the evil spirit departed from him.’ (I Sam. 16: 23).

In the present painting a councillor is depicted to the left of the throne and to the right, Michal, Saul’s daughter, David’s future wife, and Jonathan, David’s great friend. It was Jonathan who gave David his armour and his weapons. In the landscape glimpsed through the arch on the extreme left the Israelite women are seen dancing in celebration of victory over the Philistines and singing, to Saul’s consternation, ‘Saul hath slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands.’ (I Sam. 18: 7). Oppenheim chose as his motif not the moment of drama when Saul throws the spear, but the psychological moment when Saul masks his intense inner tensions.

The Israel Museum in Jerusalem holds an ink drawing by Oppenheim in which the basic composition of the present painting is shown in reverse. The Museum also holds three figure studies in pencil by Oppenheim titled Männerakt mit Harfe (Male Nude with Harp), Auf einem Thron sitzender Männerakt (Male Nude Enthroned) and Jünglingsakt einen Schild haltend (Nude Boy Holding a Shield).[10]

The composition of the painting is modelled on a motif found in the famous fresco cycle painted by Friedrich Overbeck, Philipp Veit, Wilhelm von Schadow and Peter von Cornelius for the Casa Bartholdy in Rome between 1815 and 1817. The frescoes illustrate Old Testament scenes from the story of Joseph. Important elements of the fresco titled Joseph deutet die Träume des Pharao (Joseph Interprets Pharaoh’s Dreams) by Cornelius are found in the present painting. These are the structure of the room with the throne in the centre, the ornamental baldachin, the pattern of the floor tiles and the flanking landscape views. And the figure of Saul with his spear in the present painting has certain similarities to Cornelius’s melancholy Pharaoh in the fresco.[11]

It is conceivable that the present painting, dated 1823, prompted the Römischer Komponierverein, a group of artists in the Schnorr von Carolsfeld circle, to choose a similar compositional theme. It is known that in 1824 Ludwig von Maydell proposed the theme of David playing the harp for Saul for a working meeting of the group in the autumn of 1824. An ink drawing on the same theme was executed by Schnorr von Carolsfeld that evening (this is now in a private collection).[12] Schnorr interprets the scene from another angle, clearly leaning on Gottlieb Schick’s preparatory oil sketch for a painting completed in 1803.[13] The figure of Saul is modelled on Gianfrancesco Penni’s Pharaoh in the fresco titled Joseph deutet den Traum des Pharao (Joseph Interprets Pharaoh’s Dream) for the Loggia in the Vatican.

It appears that Oppenheim took his paintings with him to Frankfurt because the composer and pianist Ferdinand Hiller, a friend of Oppenheim’s whom he had met in Weimar in 1827, describes the present painting in his memoirs: ‘I vividly recall the large painting which he exhibited in his Frankfurt studio after his return from Italy. It showed David playing the harp for Saul. It drew crowds of admiring visitors from all walks of life over a long period.’[14]

It is probable that Carl Mayer von Rothschild, who owned properties both in Naples and Frankfurt, acquired the present painting some time after 1827 in Germany. In all, he acquired five paintings by Oppenheim, all depicting scenes from the Old Testament: Abrahams Familie (The Family of Abraham), Das Opfer Abrahams (The Sacrifice of Abraham), Jakobs Segen (Jacob’s Blessing), Susanna im Bade (Susanna and the Elders) and the present painting, David vor Saul, die Harfe spielend (David Playing the Harp for Saul).[15]


[1] Moritz Oppenheim, Erinnerungen, ed. Alfred Oppenheim, Frankfurt, 1924. Cited in exhib. cat., Frankfurt am Main, Jüdisches Museum, 1999, p.342, ‘Obschon der Herr Baron in Geldsachen genau war, hielt er es doch für seine Pflicht, mich als jüdischen jungen Künstler, den er hatte loben hören, zu protegieren.’

[2] Exhib. cat., Frankfurt, 1999, p.9, ‘(…) bereits zu Lebzeiten der erste wirklich populäre jüdische Künstler in Deutschland.’

[3] See exhib. cat., Frankfurt, 1999, VII. 7 (illus.) and VII. 8-10.

[4] See Die Nazarener, exhib. cat., Frankfurt am Main, Städtische Galerie im Städelschen Kunstinstitut, 1977, p.91 (col. illus.).

[5] Ferdinand Hiller, Erinnerungsblätter, Cologne, 1884, p.122. Cited in exhib. cat., Frankfurt, 1999, p.350, ‘Lebhaft steht mir das große Gemälde vor Augen, welches er nach seiner Rückkehr aus Italien in seinem Atelier in Frankfurt ausgestellt hatte – es stellt David, vor Saul die Harfe spielend, dar und zog durch längere Zeit Scharen von bewundernden Beschauern aus den verschiedenen Welten heran.’

[6] Private collection, Great Britain. See Georg Heuberger, Anton Merk, Moritz Daniel Oppenheim. Die Entdeckung des jüdischen Selbstbewußtseins in der Kunst, exhib. cat., Frankfurt am Main, Jüdisches Museum, 1999, illus. p.171.

[7] For biographical details, see Ljuba Berankova, Erik Riedel, Moritz Daniel Oppenheim. Biographie sowie Selbstzeugnisse und Erinnerungen seiner Zeitgenossen, in exhib. cat., Frankfurt, 1999, pp.341-6.

[8] Moritz Oppenheim, Erinnerungen, ed. Alfred Oppenheim, Frankfurt, 1924. Cited in exhib. cat., Frankfurt, 1999, p.342, ‘Obschon der Herr Baron in Geldsachen genau war, hielt er es doch für seine Pflicht, mich als jüdischen jungen Künstler, den er hatte loben hören, zu protegieren.’

[9] Exhib. cat., Frankfurt, 1999, p.9, ‘(…) bereits zu Lebzeiten der erste wirklich populäre jüdische Künstler in Deutschland.’

[10] See exhib. cat., Frankfurt, 1999, VII. 7 (illus.) and VII. 8-10.

[11] See Die Nazarener, exhib. cat., Frankfurt am Main, Städtische Galerie im Städelschen Kunstinstitut, 1977, p.91 (col. illus.). A Cornelius drawing after the same fresco dating from 1816 was offered for sale in 1987 by Thomas le Claire Kunsthandel, Hamburg (Katalog IV, ‘Handzeichnungen und Aquarelle 1500-1900’, Hamburg, 1987, no.49). The Casa Bartholdy frescoes, at one time in the Palazzo Zuccari in Rome, were removed to Berlin in 1887 and are now held in the Nationalgalerie (together with a copy in watercolour).

[12] Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, Zeichnungen aus Privatbesitz, exhib. cat., Landesmuseum Mainz, 1994-5; Munich, Bayerische Vereinsbank, 1995 (Munich/New York: Prestel, 1994), no.58, illus..

[13] Gottlieb Schick. Ein Maler des Klassizismus, exhib. cat., Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, 1976, p.84 f., nos.41-2.

[14] Ferdinand Hiller, Erinnerungsblätter, Cologne, 1884, p.122. Cited in exhib. cat., Frankfurt, 1999, p.350, ‘Lebhaft steht mir das große Gemälde vor Augen, welches er nach seiner Rückkehr aus Italien in seinem Atelier in Frankfurt ausgestellt hatte – es stellt David, vor Saul die Harfe spielend, dar und zog durch längere Zeit Scharen von bewundernden Beschauern aus den verschiedenen Welten heran.’

[15] Exhib. cat., Frankfurt, 1999, I. 7, I. 8, I. 9, I. 18, I. 32.

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