Felicie Bernstein

1850 – 1908

by Petra Wilhelmy-Dollinger

Felicie Bernstein was one of the last Berlin salonnières, a patron of modern art and artists, and a philanthropist who supported early feminism.

Felicie Bernstein, née Rosenthal, was born on September 7, 1850, in St. Petersburg (or perhaps Odessa). The daughter of a wealthy St. Petersburg commercial businessman, Leo Rosenthal (d. c. 1890), she lost her mother at an early age. After being educated at a private school in Dresden she returned to St. Petersburg, where she exercised her social talents at the hospitable house of her father and fell in love with the lawyer and brilliant scholar Carl Bernstein (18421894) from Odessa. She married him in Vienna on January 14, 1872. Though Leo Rosenthal wished the couple to live in Russia, they decided to go to Germany because at that time Jews were excluded from university careers in Russia. Since Carl Bernstein had studied in Germany (Ph.D. Berlin 1864), he moved to Berlin in 1873 with his wife, his step-mother Emilie, née Halberstamm (d. 1891) and his sister Thérèse (d. 1902). In 1878 Carl Bernstein became private lecturer and in 1886 “extraordinary” professor for Roman Law at the University of Berlin. In their splendid flat in the Tiergarten (the so-called “Reichstagspräsidentenwohnung,” In den Zelten 23), where the Bernsteins lived in the 1880s, Felicie Bernstein and her family received numerous interesting guests, among them famous university professors, writers, musicians, painters and art historians. A tiny and vivacious woman, Felicie Bernstein had considerable social talents as well as a great deal of esprit, sparkling wit and spontaneous humour. She combined cleverness with instinctive goodness of heart. In her salon she was assisted by her sister-in-law Thérèse, who had an amiable but serious character. Thérèse was the précieuse of the family and gave absent-minded professors discreet hints when anything was amiss with their attire. Wednesday, the jour fixe, developed into one of the last culturally influential salons in Berlin. The flat was elegantly furnished, mainly Louis-Seize, adorned by good old and modern paintings, tapestries and objets d’art. Special sanctuaries were Carl Bernstein’s library (with a fine collection of first editions, e.g. of Goethe’s works) and the Bernstein ladies’ little oriental sitting room.

Among the guests were the historian Theodor Mommsen (18171903), the art-historian and archaeologist Georg Treu (18431921), the painter Adolph von Menzel (18151905), the graphic artist Max Klinger (18571920), the director ot the Berlin art galleries Hugo von Tschudi (18511911), the writer Karl Emil Franzos (18481904), the Danish historian of literature Georg Brandes (18421927), the famous singers Francisco d’Andrade (18591921), Désirée Artôt-de Padilla (18351907) and Anna Schultzen-von Asten (18481903), the violin virtuoso Joseph Joachim (18311907) and the composer Richard Strauß (18641949). Old friends of the family were the law scholar Rudolph von Gneist (18161895) and the professor of archaeology and Greek history Ernst Curtius (18141896). One of her most faithful habitués was the painter Max Liebermann (18471935), who joined the salon in the early 1880s and later described it as a reincarnation of the salon of Henriette Herz.

Felicie Bernstein was a cousin of the art historian Charles Ephrussi (18491905), director of the Gazette des Beaux-Arts, an expert on Renaissance art as well as an early champion of impressionism. The Bernsteins came to share his enthusiasm for the new style and bought paintings by Manet, Monet, Pissarro, Berthe Morisot and others. In Bernstein’s salon some of the first impressionistic paintings in Berlin could be admired. Younger painters were enraptured, but eccentric old Adolph Menzel could not or would not appreciate them and asked Felicie Bernstein whether she had actually paid money for that trash (“Dreck”). (When he saw that he had wounded her feelings, he apologized, but repeated naively that he really thought the paintings horrible.) Discussions in the Bernstein salon led to efforts which later brought about the founding of the Berlin Secession (in 1898), which introduced modern art to the Berlin public—in opposition to Emperor William II, his taste and his politics in art.

After the lingering illness and death of Emilie Bernstein, which overshadowed the year 1891, a serious heart disease and deteriorating eyesight forced Carl Bernstein to retire. The Bernsteins left their flat and travelled in order to restore Carl Bernstein’s health. In 1892 their beloved young friend (and almost foster-daughter) Johanna von Rentzell, a young woman studying music who had lived with the Bernsteins since the mid-1880s, married Andreas von Tuhr, a professor of law in Basel and later in Straßburg. When the Bernsteins returned to Berlin, they lived in the Hotel Kaiserhof. In 1894, before they had found a new flat, Carl Bernstein died of heart failure when a small infected wound did not heal properly.

In 1896 Felicie Bernstein and her sister-in-law left the Hotel Kaiserhof and moved into a flat at Stülerstraße 6, where they continued their salon on a smaller scale. They began to resume their visits to art exhibitions and developed an interest in the social question, the feminist movement and women’s education, generously assisting organizations and charities. In 1898 and 1899 they travelled to Britain, in 1900 they visited the World Exhibition in Paris. Wherever they stayed, their hotel suites became temporary salons. When abroad, Felicie Bernstein made friends with many interesting persons and celebrities, among them the novelist Emile Zola (18401902).

The death of Thérèse Bernstein in 1902, other family sorrows and her own failing health (she had a cancer operation in 1905), put her under heavy strain, but Felicie Bernstein did not lose heart. She still presided at her “Wednesdays,” even gave dinners for a more intimate circle and started to arrange private Sunday concerts in order to help young artists. Among Felicie Bernstein’s good friends was the salonnière Emma Dohme (18541918), widow of the art historian Robert Dohme (18451893), who in 1904 joined her for a journey to Spitzbergen and the North Cape and later accompanied her to Algeria. Other friends were the painter Sabine Lepsius (18641942), who also had a salon, the painter Walter Leistikow (18651908) and the sculptor Louis Tuaillon (18621919). Furthermore, Felicie Bernstein aided various charity and social reform projects and was awarded a medal for her charitable activities, which she received with a congratulatory letter from Empress Auguste Viktoria.

Not only a brilliant storyteller, but also a gifted letter writer, Felicie Bernstein always delighted her friends with her clever and amusing observations. Even postcards from her travels inimitably put things in a nutshell. Her last journeys were to places of beauty which helped her to forget her pains: Rome, Weimar, Switzerland and Dresden. In spring 1908, when she knew that she had not much time left, she put her affairs in order and took leave of her friends, either by letter or personally. She bequeathed valuable paintings to her friends (Max Liebermann received a famous “Champ de coquelicots” by Monet) and to the Berlin National Gallery (Manet’s “White Lilac”). Keepsakes from among her objets d’art were left to a wider range of acquaintances and generous legacies to the Berlin Secession and to various charitable and social projects.

Felicie Bernstein died in Berlin on June 11, 1908, and was buried on June 14 at the Weißensee cemetery. After her death the dramatist and novelist Georg Reicke (18631923), Second Mayor of Berlin, claimed that Felicie Bernstein’s death ended a Berlin salon which could never be replaced.


Primary Sources

[Bernstein, Carl and Felicie.] Carl und Felicie Bernstein. Erinnerungen ihrer Freunde. [Preface by Georg Treu. With essays by Max Liebermann, Gustav Cohn, Hugo von Tschudi et al.] Dresden: 1914.

With several illustrations and plates, including a portrait of Felicie Bernstein. There are also extensive quotations from her letters, which, unfortunately, seem to be scattered and have not been published.

Furtwängler, Adolf. Briefe aus dem Bonner Privatdozentenjahr 1879/80 und seiner Tätigkeit an den Berliner Museen 1880–1894, ed. by Adolf Greifenhagen. Stuttgart, Berlin, Cologne, Mainz: 1965.

The author was an archaeologist who visited the Bernstein salon. See pp. 38, 42 and 64.

Lepsius, Sabine. “Über das Aussterben der ‘Salons’.” März. Eine Wochenschrift, seventh year, vol. 3 (1913), 222234. Cf. pp. 226–227. Cf. also idem., Vom deutschen Lebensstil, Leipzig [1916], p. 42. The painter Sabine Lepsius herself had a kind of salon.

Lepsius, Sabine. Ein Berliner Künstlerleben um die Jahrhundertwende. Erinnerungen, ed. by Monica Behrendt. Munich: 1972. See pp. 8687.

Liebermann, Max. “Meine Erinnerungen an die Familie Bernstein (1908).” In Gesammelte Schriften, 121131. Berlin: 1922. Reprint from Carl und Felicie Bernstein. Erinnerungen ihrer Freunde.

Weisbach, Werner. Und alles ist zerstoben. Erinnerungen aus der Jahrhundertwende. Vienna, Leipzig, Zürich: 1937.

Valuable reminiscences of an art historian. See pp. 335, 370371.

Secondary Sources

Wilhelmy, Petra. Der Berliner Salon im 19. Jahrhundert (17801914). Berlin, New York: 1989. (Schriftenreihe der Historischen Kommission zu Berlin, vol. 73)

Description of the salon, with list of habitués. See pp. 311314 and 612614.

Wilhelmy-Dollinger, Petra. Die Berliner Salons. Mit historisch-literarischen Spaziergängen. Berlin, New York: 2000.

See pp. 309311. For Bernstein’s grave at the Weißensee cemetery, see p. 427. Portrait plate 16.


Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

Portrait of Felicie Bernstein, 1872. From Carl and Felicie Bernstein. Recollections of their Friends. (Carl und Felicie Bernstein. Erinnerungen ihrer Freunde. Ed. and preface by Georg Treu. With essays by Max Liebermann, Gustav Cohn, Hugo von Tschudi et al. Illustration on p. 15. Dresden: 1914.

How to cite this page

Wilhelmy-Dollinger, Petra. "Felicie Bernstein." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 27 February 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on March 7, 2021) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/bernstein-felicie>.


Help us elevate the voices of Jewish women.

donate now

Get JWA in your inbox