The Enlightenment of the eighteenth century and its Jewish counterpart, the Haskalah, resulted in the emancipation of Jews and their subsequent entry into professional fields previously closed to them. No account of this emancipation in Western Europe is complete without a discussion of the painter Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, born in Hanau, near Frankfurt am Main. Through the lifting of restrictions, Oppenheim, an observant Jew, was able to acquire proper academic training and become a highly successful artist.
The Return of the Volunteer, Oppenheim's undeniable masterpiece, is a signal work in the history of the artistic contribution of the Jews. It is generally considered the first effort of a known Jewish artist to confront a specifically Jewish subject. Like many works from the Romantic School, and more specifically that of Biedermeier painting in Germanic countries, the picture falls into the category of historical genre. Oppenheim represents a wounded Jewish soldier in a Hussar's uniform who has just returned to his family after helping to defend Germany against the Napoleonic armies. In his haste to be reunited with his family, the young man has, contrary to Jewish law, traveled on the Sabbath.
Love of detail and the petit-bourgeois concerns of the Biedermeier period are evident in this comfortable domestic setting. Ritual objects and food, carefully depicted, indicate the richness and grace of Jewish culture. A portrait of Frederick the Great, emperor of Prussia, adds a politically expedient note of German patriotism. The soldier's mother and siblings appear in various states of concern and delight as they fawn over their just-returned relative and simultaneously express admiration for his uniform and other military accoutrements. The father's rapt gaze at his son's Iron Cross, a military decoration that is also a Christian symbol, exposes a struggle to resolve his conflicted emotions of pride and anxiety.
The Return of the Jewish Volunteer was painted when Jewish civil rights were again in a tenuous state. In the wake of political unrest following the 1830 revolutions in France and their reverberations in Germany, many German states reimposed repressive legislation that affected rights recently won by Jews. This painting has been interpreted as a reminder to Germans of the significant role played by Jews in the Wars of Liberation, and its political overtones are unusual in the generally apolitical nature of Biedermeier art.
Popular in early-nineteenth-century art, images of departing and returning volunteers served as sources for Oppenheim's work. He must have followed the career of his fellow Hanauer Johann Peter Krafft, whose paintings The Departure of the Militiaman (1813) and The Return of the Militiaman (1820) were bought by the Hapsburg emperor. Additional sources include François Rude's Paris monument The Departure of the Volunteers, also begun in 1833, along with numerous genre representations of departures and returns executed around the time of the French Revolution, The conception of The Return of the Sons (c. 18oo), by the eminent German artist Phillip Otto Runge (1777-1810), is strikingly similar to Oppenheim's. Both Runge's and Oppenheim's characterizations depend thematically and compositionally on popular eighteenth-century interpretations of the Return of the Prodigal Son.
Oppenheim's privileged life and artistic career are charmingly chronicled in his autobiography, Erinnensngen (Remembrances). The part recording his stay in Rome is particularly poignant, describing the conflicts of an observant Jew, united with his fellow artists in creative sensibility but separated from them in his religious beliefs and practices. This tension-between country and religion, modernity and tradition-plays a central role in Oppenheim's life and in many of the subjects he explored during his sixty-five-year career.