June 23, 2021

Researching the Lost Portrait of Gutle Rothschild

By Susan Nashman Fraiman

Researching a lost work of art is like solving a mystery—and, as is often the case, sometimes the mystery is only partially unraveled, while threads of other mysteries are discovered.  “The Lost Portrait of Gutle Rothschild,”   an article about a painting by Moritz Oppenheim (published online in Judaica. Neue Digitale Folge) began as a serious project while I was an HBI Research Associate in 2012-2013. This painting has only survived in a black and white photograph taken in Germany in the 1930s. The “herstory” of Jewish history is not often reflected in written sources, and a wide variety of objects, portraits included, can help complete the picture.

Portrait of Gutle Rothschild, black and white

Moritz Daniel Oppenheim (1800-1882), Portrait of Gutle Rothschild, 1840/9, photo from the glass negative in the archives of the Jewish Museum Frankfurt

Three things drew me to this subject: my interest in the depiction of early modern Jewish women, my interest in the artist Moritz Oppenheim, and lastly, my interest in art lost in the Holocaust. What truly inspired and facilitated the research was a detailed description of the painting by Guido Schoenberger in what was to be the last issue of the Jüdisches Gemeindblatt, published right before Kristallnacht, the events of November 9-10, 1938. As it would happen, I found this description while investigating another painting by Oppenheim, and thus had to postpone further research into this intriguing portrait of Gutle Rothschild for a while. 

Moritz Oppenheim was the first modern Jewish artist to remain Jewish, unlike the artists Philipp Veit, the grandson of Moses Mendelssohn, (1793-1877) or Eduard Bendemann (1811-1889). The road to equality and opportunity in Germany, even during the Napoleonic period and afterward, was often paved by conversion—even when not undertaken from conviction; Heinrich Heine is a well-known example.  It is thus notable that Oppenheim, as a Jew, managed to study in art academies, join the Freemasons, live in Rome surrounded by artists from all over Europe, and return to Frankfurt, where he became an established portrait painter, also executing civic and private commissions. In Frankfurt, Oppenheim was retained as the “official” artist of the Rothschild family, not only painting their portraits but instructing family members and purchasing art for them. Within this context, he painted the portrait of Gutle (1753-1849) about nine years before her death at the ripe old age of 92. The painting hung in the Jewish Museum of Frankfurt until 1938.  Schoenberger, (1891-1974), a Jewish art historian, served as the curator of that museum after being evicted from his other posts with the rise of the Nazi party, and in this role wrote the aforementioned article about Gutle Rothschild for the Jewish community newspaper.  Schoenberger’s description of the painting is thorough—in the article he called attention to the exact dating of the work, the setting, the dress of the subject, and the objects with which she was depicted. This detailed account gave me a basis from which to attempt to put the painting and its subject in context. 

Gutle Rothschild was the wife of Meyer Amschel Rothschild, and together they founded the Rothschild dynasty.  Their five sons spread out over Europe, creating branches of the family bank in Frankfurt, Naples, Vienna, London and Paris.  While much research has been devoted to the father and the sons, little has been written about Gutle. Although Gutle was a venerated figure, there is no one source for her biography. Yet her role in the family was key, both before and after her husband’s early death. In my research, I culled information from sources as disparate as Heinrich Heine’s memoirs, the Times of London, and stories by Hans Christian Andersen. Gutle’s portrait was unique among Oppenheim’s works and among depictions of women in art in general, as she was depicted with a newspaper and prayer book in front of her, on the background of the main square of the Frankfurt Jewish ghetto and its synagogue. In contrast, most of Oppenheim’s portraits of the Rothschild family are on solid backgrounds, and it was rare for a woman’s portrait of that time by any artist to have so many additional details, let alone “Jewish semiotics”, as Richard Brilliant has called them.  As such, Oppenheim created an extraordinary work, faithful to his subject and her surroundings.

The fate of the painting is unknown. Schoenberger managed to get to the United States in 1939, where he served as a lecturer at New York University and research fellow of the Jewish Museum in New York City. With the Frankfurt museum’s Jewish curatorial staff dispersed, there were few if any witnesses to what actually happened to the collection during the war. Some of the museum’s works were left in Frankfurt, and others shipped to outlying locations during the war for safe-keeping.  The bombing of Frankfurt by the Allies from 1943 on led to much destruction.  Nevertheless, some of the Oppenheim works that had hung alongside Gutle’s portrait in the museum surfaced after the war, and some of these are in the Israel Museum collection today. Will the article lead to finding the portrait?  I wouldn’t rule it out, since as we know, artworks hidden or misattributed since World War II continue to appear in the news. It is my hope that greater awareness of this painting will contribute to making the story of Gutle Rothschild better known and add to the history of Jewish women. 

Dr. Susan Nashman Fraiman is a researcher and curator of Jewish and Israeli art.  She currently lectures at the Rothberg International School of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and has a blog at www.artinisrael.net. She was an HBI Research Associate in 2012-2013. 


  1. Shulamit Baumgart says:

    Bravo, Susan! A very interesting article and admiring of your aims with it. May it bring forth results and your writing the background is very inlightening. I hope to catch up on other articles you’ve written and read your blog which I now know of. Keep up the exellent work!

  2. Shalva Weil says:

    Great piece. This weekend we read in Haaretz about a female Prague Jewish artist’s paintings turning up quite unaccountably. Here we are searching for a portrait of a female. All very intriguing!

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