Oil painting on canvas, The Elector of Hesse entrusting Mayer Amschel Rothschild with his Treasure by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim (Hanau 1800 - Frankfurt 1882). These two paintings together illustrate the well-known but apocryphal story told to account for how the founder of the Rothschild banking firm, Mayer Amschel Rothschild (1743-1812) established his firm as the most successful organ of international finance in Europe.
As the legend had it, Landgraf Wilhelm of Hessen-Kassel (who had been elevated to Elector by Napoleon in 1803), reputedly the richest man in Europe, thanks to his family's traditional practice of hiring out its troops as mercenaries and to his own pursuit of money-lending, entrusted his treasures to Mayer Amschel in Frankfurt when the French had turned on him, and he was about to flee, in 1806. Mayer Amschel (seen here with his wife Gutle, neé Schnapper, and their youngest daughter, Henriette, later Mrs Abraham Montefiore) is supposed to have hidden these, but not his own assets, so that the latter would be seized by the French and thus avert a search of his premises and the discovery of the Elector's. When the Elector was restored in 1813, Mayer Amschel (sic) is reputed to have offered him back his property with interest, which Wilhelm refused, assuring him instead that he could have the use of his money for the next twenty years at no more than 2% interest.
The facts are slightly different: Wilhelm had already lost his silver bullion when the French took Kassel, because he was still haggling with the captain of a boat over the price of its conveyance to England; it was chests of papers about his business activities that he entrusted to Mayer Amschel; and it was the money that Nathan Meyer Rothschild managed on his behalf to finance the war effort in London that turned the latter into the most influential banker in England, and him and his four brothers into an unrivalled network of bankers across Europe. The eldest son, Amschel Mayer (1773-1855), remained in Frankfurt, Salomon (1774-1855) settled in Vienna, Nathan Mayer (1777-1836) in London, Carl Mayer (1788-1855) in Naples, and James Mayer (1792-1868) in Paris - all but Carl founding dynasties in their respective countries, albeit with much intermarriage.
The two pictures are nonetheless a vivid evocation of the relatively simple, old-fashioned premises in the Judengasse, the central street of the Jewish ghetto in Frankfurt, which were both home and offices to the Rothschilds, and the heart of their empire, until the rise of N.M. Rothschild at New Court in London. Nonetheless, the premises have been subtly improved between the two pictures, both of which betray signs of the taste for collecting objets d'art that began with Mayer Amschel, and which was to be one of the dominant traits of the whole Rothschild clan, to which Ascott itself bears such eloquent testimony.
The artist was himself Jewish, and it is possible that he was connected with the Oppenheims of Hanover (but originally of Frankfurt) with whom Mayer Amschel had spent six years learning the business of banking.
Makers and roles
Moritz Daniel Oppenheim (Hanau 1800 - Frankfurt 1882)
Ascott, Buckinghamshire, Scala, 2008 by John Martin Robinson and others [pictures entries by Karin Wolfe on basis of Gore entries, 1963 with contributions from Alastair Laing] , no. 1