Moritz D. Oppenheim (Germany, 1800-1882)
Lavater and Lessing Visit Moses Mendelssohn
oil on canvas
Gift of Vernon Stroud, Eva Linker, Gerda Mathan, Ilse Feiger and Irwin Straus in memory of Frederick and Edith Straus, Accession No. 75.18.
This much-celebrated (and reproduced) painting by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim (German, 1800-1882) portrays an imagined meeting among scholars and intellectual associates Moses Mendelsohn (1729-1786) and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781), and the Swiss theologian Johann Kaspar Lavater (1741-1801), at the residence of Moses Mendelssohn, located at Spandauerstraße 68, Alt Berlin. Mendelssohn is depicted on the left, wearing a red coat, and seated at a chess table in his library with Lavater. Lessing stands at the center behind the two.
The scene refers to two foundational moments in the history of German-Jewish cultural interaction. The actual meetings between Mendelssohn and Lavater, which took place in 1763-64, were followed by the failed attempt on the part of the theologian to convince Mendelssohn to embrace Christianity. The well-known friendship between Mendelssohn and Lessing, one of the high points of the haskalah, or “Jewish Enlightenment,” came to be considered a paradigm of the possibility of a harmonious cohabitation between Germans and Jews.
While in line with other 18th-century iconographic sources, the shape of Mendelssohn’s profile may have been inspired by the silhouette included in Lavater’s Physiognomische Fragmente zur Beförderung der Menschenkenntniß und Menschenliebe (Physiognomic Fragments for the Promotion of The Knowledge and Love of Mankind, 1775-1778). This is quite an ironic turn. In his work, Lavater described Mendelssohn as "a companionable, brilliant soul, with piercing eyes, the body of an Aesop - a man of keen insight, exquisite taste and wide erudition […] frank and open-hearted,"ending the praise with the wish that Mendelssohn could acknowledge, "together with Plato and Moses […] the crucified glory of Christ".
A chess board is positioned at the center among the three characters. This is likely a visual quotation of Lessing's drama, Nathan der Weise, Ein dramatisches Gedicht, in fünf Aufzügen (Nathan the Wise. A Dramatic Poem in Five Acts), published in Berlin by C. F. Voss in 1779 (View catalog record in UC Berkeley's OskiCat). Set in Jerusalem during the Third Crusade, the drama, which exalts the virtues of intellectual exchange and religious tolerance, staged a Jewish merchant, Nathan, in a meeting over a game of chess with the enlightened sultan, Saladin. The character of Nathan was modeled after Moses Mendelssohn. In the painting, the chess board also represents a "visual pun": red (on Lavater's side) has been put in checkmate by white, in reference to the intellectual superiority attributed to the association between Mendelssohn and Lessing over Lavater's stance.
Lavater has his hand on an open book, on the page of which Oppenheim painted the name, "Bonnet." The book is a reference to Lavater's German translation of a work by Charles Bonnet (1720-1793): Herrn C. Bonnets, verschiedener Akademieen Mitglieds, Philosophische Palingenesie, oder, Gedanken über den vergangenen und künftigen Zustand lebender Wesen : als ein Anhang zu den letztern Schriften des Verfassers, und welcher insonderheit das Wesentliche seiner Untersuchungen über das Christenthum enthält / aus dem Französischen übersetzt, und mit Anmerkungen herausgegeben von Johann Caspar Lavater, Zürich. Bey Orell, Gessner, Füssli und Compagnie, 1769-1770); in English: Philosophical palingenesis, or thoughts about the past and future state of living beings by Mr C. Bonnet, member of various academies: including the latest writings of the author, containing as a special feature his research on the essence of Christianity, translated from French, edited and annotated by Johann Caspar Lavater. (View catalog record in UC Berkeley's OskiCat). This translation of Bonnet’s La palingénésie philosophique (1769), was used by the theologian to obtain from Mendelssohn a reply concerning the “essence of Christianity.”
Above the three men hangs a brass lamp, which combines a chandelier (on the top section) with an oil lamp (on the lower section), used respectively for illumination, and for ritual purposes on the Sabbath and other Jewish holidays. Iconographic sources from Germany attest the use of chandeliers also inside the synagogue.
On the right, a servant is entering the room holding a tray. Moritz Oppenheim's study for this female figure is also part of the Magnes Collection (See database record). Above her, the door frame is inscribed with the Hebrew blessing: ברוך אתה בבואך וברוך אתה בצאתך, or "Blessed shalt thou be when thou comest in, and blessed shalt thou be when thou goest out," (Deuteronomy 28: 6). This biblical quotation is possibly a reference to the friendship between Mendelssohn and Lessing, as well as (in a rather ironic turn) to the transience of the conflictual relationship between Mendelssohn and Lavater (whose hat and walking stick appear on the lower right of the painting).
On the back wall at the left of the scene hangs a framed mizrach (מזרח, the Hebrew word for “East” is faintly legible), a wall-hanging indicating the direction being faced during prayer according to the Jewish ritual. This, along with the Sabbath lamp hanging from the ceiling, the head-covering anachronistically placed over Mendelssohn's head (no contemporary iconographic source depicts Mendelssohn wearing any form of head-covering), the Hebrew inscription on the door frame, and possibly a tall untitled volume, reminiscent of a Talmudic tractate, featured noticeably on the lower left of the scene, can be seen as attempts on the part of the painter to interpret Mendelssohn's attachment to Judaism through the lenses of the canons of Jewish observance that dominated the mid-19th century, when the painting was made.
Moritz Oppenheim's signature and date appear prominently at the bottom
of the painting.