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The Return of the Volunteer from the Wars of Liberation to His Family Still Living in Accordance with Old Customs (Die Heimkehr des Freiwilligen aus den Befreiungskriegen zu den nach alter Sitte lebenden Seinen)

Moritz Daniel Oppenheim (German, 1800-1882)

The Return of the Volunteer from the Wars of Liberation to His Family Still Living in Accordance with Old Customs (Die Heimkehr des Freiwilligen aus den Befreiungskriegen zu den nach alter Sitte lebenden Seinen), 1833-34

  • Oil on canvas
  • 34 x 37 in. (86.4 x 94 cm)
  • The Jewish Museum, New York
  • Gift of Richard and Beatrice Levy , 1984-61

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The Return of the Volunteer from the Wars of Liberation to His Family Still Living in Accordance with Old Customs (Die Heimkehr des Freiwilligen aus den Befreiungskriegen zu den nach alter Sitte lebenden Seinen)

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The Return of the Volunteer from the Wars of Liberation to His Family Still Living in Accordance with Old Customs (Die Heimkehr des Freiwilligen aus den Befreiungskriegen zu den nach alter Sitte lebenden Seinen)

The Return of the Jewish Volunteer by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim is generally considered the first example of a known Jewish artist confronting a specifically Jewish subject. It is a historical genre painting—a painting of everyday life—but is also inflected with specific historical content.

The main figure in Oppenheim’s work is a wounded Jewish soldier in a military uniform. The soldier has just returned to his family after helping to defend Germany against the Napoleonic armies of France. In his haste to be reunited with his family, the young man has, contrary to Jewish law, traveled on the Sabbath.

The soldier's mother and siblings appear in various states of concern and delight. Some direct their attention to the soldier himself while others peer at his uniform and other military accoutrements. The father looks at his son's Iron Cross, a military decoration that is also a Christian symbol. The father’s gaze seems to betray an inner struggle to resolve conflicted emotions of pride, concern, and anxiety.

The Return of the Jewish Volunteer was painted at a time when Jewish civil rights in Germany were in a tenuous state. In the wake of the 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. Art historians interpret this painting as a reminder to Germans of the significant role played by Jews in the Wars of Liberation, some twenty years earlier. Beyond the son’s military status, the hanging portrait of Frederick the Great, emperor of Prussia, is a visual indicator of the political context of this painting.

Oppenheim’s painting suggests both a tension between country and religion and between generations—between the traditions of the old and the new ways of the young.

Sources:
Oppenheim, Moritz Daniel. Twenty Portraits of Jewish Life. Preface by Jacob Kainen. New York: Arthur Rothmann Fine Arts, 1982.

Goodman, Susan. The Emergence of Jewish Artists in Nineteenth-Century Europe. New York: The Jewish Museum, 2001.