Jewish Painters

With the Enlightenment, Jewish painters experienced unprecedented opportunity.

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In the 19th century, Jewish painters experienced opportunity unprecedented in Jewish history. The European Enlightenment and its subsequent societal reforms allowed Jews to leave the Jewish ghetto and join their gentile neighbors in the marketplace and the university. As Jewish people were granted equal citizenship under the law, Jews established themselves in a variety of new career paths, including the arts.

The First Jewish Painters

This shift in social and cultural structure impacted the life of Jewish painters in two important ways: (1) Jews were admitted to study at the best of Europe’s fine arts academies, and (2) as Jews became more assimilated into mainstream society they began commissioning paintings, just as their gentile neighbors did–thus creating work for Jewish painters. With such opportunity, Jews entered the field of painting, many gaining acclaim for their art.

Daniel Moritz Oppenheim (1799-1882) has been referred to by some as the “first Jewish painter.” A German Jew, Oppenheim’s critically-acclaimed work drew on his Jewish experience. His paintings portray a variety of scenes from ordinary domestic Jewish life during that era–wedding feasts, families gathered for Sabbath and other festival meals, scholars pouring over their books. Oppenheim, who studied in Rome, also painted a variety of work inspired by the Bible, both the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Bible. The wealthy Rothschild family served as his patron for many years.

Moses and the Law (1818), by Daniel Moritz Oppenheim

Many of the Jewish painters who followed Oppenheim focused less on Jewish life and content. For example, Camille Pissaro, the well-known Impressionist, was born in the West Indies to a Creole mother and French Jewish father. Pissaro’s impressionistic paintings captured scenes of urban life–a new sense of modernism. Pissaro captured a variety of different people from different ethnicities in his paintings.  This interest, perhaps inspired by Pissaro’s own mix of ethnic backgrounds, focuses more on ethnicity than religion. His subject matters are not specifically “Jewish” in nature.

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Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer is a freelance writer and educator based in Philadelphia. She is the author of two books of plays for children: The Magic Tanach and Other Short Plays and Extraordinary Jews: Staging Their Lives as well as The Creative Jewish Wedding Book.

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