That the role of Jewish women in the 18th century was prized is further evidenced by a Blessing Sheet (Lot 95) written to accompany an Esther scroll in 1770 Rome. Since rabbinic opinion is divided as to whether blessings can be written on the megillah itself, the custom was to write and decorate a separate Blessing Sheet. This example features three archways, two containing the blessings before and after the megillah reading and the third a liturgical hymn, Korei Megillah, traditionally recited by the Jews of Italy. The central image is surrounded by delicate wreaths of roses that frame the author’s inscription that this was “written by Camilla, daughter of Moses Ephraim Miele-Rossi” in 1770. The catalogue tells us “It is the only known example of an Esther scroll blessing sheet written by a woman in the pre-modern period.” One wonders if Camillia also executed the illumination. Or perhaps we have to be content with her simple skill as a sofer.
Isidor Kaufmann’s (1853 – 1921) (Lot 55) stunning “The Newlywed” was last seen at a Sotheby’s sale in December 19, 2007. It is notable for its loving detail, especially considering its diminutive size, 13 3/8 x 10 ½. While the catalogue states “women are infrequent subjects in Kaufmann’s religious Jewish paintings,” nonetheless his treatment always delves into a significant aspect of Jewish life from a woman’s perspective. Considering Kaufmann’s non-religious background, his role as an ethnographer in carefully documenting the dress and customs of Eastern European Jews is remarkable. Since the fur trimmed shawl, earrings and pearl necklace appear in other of his paintings, it is likely that this is not an actual portrait, but rather a genre painting done for a customer or on speculation for the healthy market for Jewish genre paintings. As has been conjectured in other of his works, the model may have been a member of his own family. That said the depth of psychological insight is especially sensitive and impressively modern. This young woman has just confronted one of life’s most serious events: marriage. Her life suddenly stretches out before her with all the possibilities of happiness, struggle and tragedy. In her steady, serious gaze she confronts us with this realization and draws us into her dawning consciousness. As we become locked into her interior world we cannot but help ponder that Kaufmann’s home and studio was located in Freud’s Vienna.
The momentous decision involved in marriage is likewise explored by a profoundly different kind of artist. Moritz Daniel Oppenheim (1800 – 1882) was rooted in the sentimentality of 19th century academic painting. As the first professional Jewish artist of the modern era he was a wildly successful master of Jewish genre painting, specializing in depicting a world long gone, the 18th century life of German Jewry. The Betrothal (1862) (Lot 56) at first glance seems to depict simply a hopeful suitor discussing marriage with the father of his bride to be. He leans forward with sincerity while the father listens thoughtfully as his daughter glances at her beau. All quite sweet and superficial. But Oppenheim has more on his mind. Soon we notice the mother on the left side of the painting. Pictorially and literally off to the side in deference to an ultimately male decision, nonetheless her telling glance back to them and her subtle hand gesture reveals a world of women’s wisdom. She points upward to the true source of all matchmaking, quietly reminding her family Who is really in charge. Her insight is of course deeply traditional in contrast to Kaufmann’s modern psychological bent. But what they share is a conviction that, no matter what, a Jewish woman’s voice must be seriously heard.
N.B. I am deeply indebted to the scholarly captions found in the Sotheby’s catalogue for this sale number N08814. The catalogue and notes are available online at sothebys.com with high resolution images.
Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Contact him at email@example.com