Liebermann, Max

views updated May 29 2018


LIEBERMANN, MAX (1847–1935), German painter and graphic artist.

Max Liebermann was one of the most prominent figures in German art in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He began his career as an enfant terrible of realism but evolved into the most celebrated representative of German impressionism. As a founder of the Berlin Secession and its first president (1899), he was instrumental in the development of modernism in Germany, both artistically and institutionally; his world-class collection of French impressionist paintings, alongside influential writings on art, such as his monograph on Edgar Degas, augmented his significance as a champion of modern art. Although the early years of his career were marked by controversy, by the time he served as president of the Prussian Academy of Arts (1920–1932), he had become a representative of the artistic establishment. As a Jew, Liebermann has been seen as an exemplary figure for evaluating Jewish assimilation into German society and he has been a focus of debate on the role of Jews in German culture generally and as agents of modernism in particular.

Born into a wealthy Berlin family, Liebermann began his studies with the Berlin horse painter Carl Steffeck and in 1869 enrolled in the Weimar art academy. In 1871 he visited the studio of the Hungarian painter Minhály Munkácsy in Dusseldorf; this encounter inspired Liebermann's first major work, Die Gänserupferinnen (1872; Women plucking geese). The painting's realist depiction of poor people engaged in physical labor, rendered in a somber palette of browns, elicited scathing criticism when it was exhibited, earning Liebermann the epithet "apostle of ugliness." Liebermann's Parisian sojourns (1872; 1874–1878), exposing him to the Courbet and Barbizon school painters, coupled with his yearly trips to Holland, reinforced these tendencies. During the 1870s and 1880s, Liebermann's work was characterized by a naturalistic and sympathetic depiction of working people: the simple life of a community in harmony with nature, the dignity of peasants harvesting potatoes, tending animals, weaving and bleaching linen. These scenes were often set in Holland, a land whose painterly tradition (especially of Franz Hals and Rembrandt) and contemporary communal structure he admired. In works such as Freistunde im Amsetrdamer Waisenhaus (1882; Leisure hour in the Amsterdam orphanage), Liebermann depicted the exemplary way that Dutch social welfare institutions cared for the poor, orphaned, and elderly.

Liebermann settled in Munich in 1878. The following year, Der zwölfjährige Jesus im Tempel (1879; The twelve-year-old Jesus in the Temple) unleashed a storm of controversy when it was exhibited in Munich, eliciting anti-Semitic attacks in the press and prompting a debate in the Bavarian parliament. Liebermann's unidealized depiction of Jesus was criticized as "the ugliest, most impertinent Jewish boy imaginable." Whereas other German artists were presenting New Testament scenes with contemporary realism, a Jewish artist's interpretation of this theme proved to be too much for many Germans to tolerate. In response, Liebermann altered the painting to make Jesus look less scruffy, less unkempt, and less stereotypically Jewish; he mostly avoided Biblical subjects for the rest of his career.

In 1884 Liebermann married Martha Marckwald and returned to Berlin, eventually moving into the house at Pariser Platz 7, next to the Brandenburg Gate, which his father had acquired in 1859. He became part of a circle of early enthusiasts of French impressionism that gathered in the home of pioneering collectors Carl and Felicie Bernstein. The year 1884 also marked his first depiction of the Judengasse (Jewish quarter) in Amsterdam, a subject he would explore obsessively into the next century; it was also the year he introduced freer methods of paint handling and greater movement into his compositions. This change in style accompanied a gradual shift away from depictions of rural working people to representations of Liebermann's own class, the urban upper bourgeoisie, engaged in leisure activities: at the seashore, riding horses, playing tennis, relaxing in

parks and beer terraces. In this choice of subjects, in his penchant for painting out of doors, and in his lightened palette and looser brushwork, Liebermann demonstrated many affinities with French impressionism without adopting the more radical innovations of color, facture, and spatial organization that characterized the French movement.

Liebermann was a passionate defender and collector of French modernism at a time when deep-seated anti-French sentiments in Prussia branded enthusiasm for French culture as antipatriotic. Although Liebermann was suspect in certain circles for his cosmopolitan and francophile tastes, by the late 1890s he had achieved official recognition. For his fiftieth birthday, in 1896, he was honored with a retrospective exhibition at the Berlin salon, received the Great Gold Medal, and was awarded the title of professor; the following year he was elected to the Royal Academy. Yet in 1898 he became one of the founders of the Berlin Secession, that major break with the officially sanctioned academic art establishment.

Liebermann had already demonstrated his organizational talents: he spearheaded (unofficial) German participation in the 1889 Paris Exposition and co-founded the independent exhibition group called the Eleven, in 1892. He was elected first president of the Berlin Secession, which was founded in 1898 as an alternative to the conservative exhibition and patronage policies of the state's art associations. Throughout central Europe at this time, artists were forming secessions in order to organize their own exhibitions, establish their own galleries and publications, and nurture a more progressive art public. Conservatives condemned the Berlin Secession's cosmopolitan values and its exhibition of foreign artists as reflecting the subversion of German culture by alien influences, namely French-influenced Jewish artists and dealers. Liebermann remained president until 1911, by which time his resistance to including the younger generation of expressionists showed that he was no longer in the vanguard. In 1920 Liebermann reached the apogee of artistic public life, becoming president of the Prussian Academy of Arts.

Liebermann's late work focused on the garden of his country home on the Wannsee, a wealthy area of villas surrounding a lake on the outskirts of Berlin. In addition, he was much in demand for his sensitive and insightful portraits of the leading figures of German society. Self-portraits constitute a large part of Liebermann's oeuvre, as they do of Rembrandt's, and they range from the slightly comic and symbol-laden Selbstbildnis mit Küchenstilleben (1873; Self-portrait with kitchen still life) to the debonair and self-confident artist holding a cigarette and surrounded by paintings in his studio (1909–1910), to the late self-portrait with paint brushes revealing the anxieties of old age and the political realities of Nazi Berlin (1934).

On his eightieth birthday, in 1927, Liebermann's career was celebrated with an exhibition and he was made an honorary citizen of Berlin. By 1932 Nazi attacks prompted his resignation as president of the Academy of Arts. The Nazi ascent to power in 1933 inspired a classic example of Liebermann's legendary Berlin wit: "I could not possibly eat as much as I would like to throw up." Liebermann was ostracized from public life and his art banished from Nazi Germany's museums; only a few non-Jews had the courage to attend his burial on 11 February 1935. Liebermann's widow, Martha, committed suicide in March 1943 to avoid her imminent deportation to the Theresienstadt concentration camp.

See alsoAnti-Semitism; Berlin; Impressionism; Jews and Judaism; Modernism; Painting; Realism and Naturalism.


Achenbach, Sigrid, and Matthias Eberle, eds. Max Liebermann in seiner Zeit. Munich and Berlin, 1979.

Bilski, Emily D. ed. Berlin Metropolis: Jews and the New Culture 1890–1918. Berkeley, Calif., and New York, 1999. Especially the essays by Bilski, Paret, and Schütz.

Eberle, Matthias. Max Liebermann 1847–1935: Werkverzeichnis der Gemälde und Ölstudien. 2 vols. Munich, 1995–1996.

Frenssen, Birte, and Jenns Eric Howoldt, eds. Max Liebermann: Der Realist und die Phantasie. Hamburg, 1997.

Gay, Peter. Freud, Jews and Other Germans: Masters and Victims in Modernist Culture. New York, 1978.

Janda, Karl Heinz, and Annegret Janda. "Max Liebermann als Kunstsammler." Forschungen und Berichte der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin, 15 (1973): 105–148.

Natter, G. Tobias, and Julius H. Schoeps, eds. Max Liebermann und die französischen Impressionisten. Vienna, 1997.

Paret, Peter. The Berlin Secession: Modernism and Its Enemies in Imperial Germany. Cambridge, Mass., 1980.

Wesenberg, Angelika, ed. Max Liebermann: Jahrhundertwende. Berlin, 1997.

Emily D. Bilski

Liebermann, Max

views updated May 23 2018


LIEBERMANN, MAX (1847–1935), German painter. Liebermann, the son of a Berlin industrialist, studied at the Weimar Academy. He was only 23 when his picture of The Boy Jesus in Dispute with the Rabbis was attacked by critics, some of whom appear to have been motivated by antisemitism. Two years later his Women Plucking Geese received high praise when it was exhibited in Hamburg and Berlin.

Liebermann was a very Nordic painter. Photographic naturalism was as abhorrent to him as expressionism, and although he has often been called an impressionist he never regarded himself as one. He spent much of his life in Holland and was heavily influenced by its gray skies. He used cool, austere colors to paint the bleak, flat Netherlands landscapes in which he discovered the excitement of changing atmosphere, sunlight intermingling with mist, blue hazes, and empty spaces. While his early work tended to be static, he gradually loosened up as regards form and color, reversing the traditional pattern by growing freer and more spontaneous as he became older. In his fifties he began painting athletes in action, rearing horses, and the colorful vegetable markets of the Amsterdam Jewish quarter.

In 1898 Liebermann became a member of the Berlin Academy and helped to found Sezession, an association of progressive artists. In 1920 he became president of the Berlin Academy of Art. His Gesammelte Schriften ("Collected Writings") appeared in 1922. By this time he was too frail for his regular trips to Holland and did much of his painting at his summer home in Wannsee, outside Berlin. He became a celebrated and expensive portraitist, painting his sitters with a broad virtuosity, but not often probing deeply into their personality. Among them were Hermann *Cohen, Georg *Brandes, and Walther *Rathenau. He also did thousands of rapid sketches in pen, pencil, crayon, and chalk.

Liebermann considered himself first and foremost a German and had little interest in Jewish affairs, although he described himself as being "very much aware of belonging to the Jewish people" and as watching the goals of Zionism with "the greatest interest." Apart from his paintings and drawings of the Amsterdam ghetto, virtually his only work on Jewish subjects was a series of lithographs for an edition of Heinrich *Heine's Rabbi of Bacharach and two oils on the Samson and Delilah theme. When the Nazis came to power in 1933 he was ousted from presidency of the Academy and his paintings were removed from all German museums. His death two years later was completely ignored by the German press. In 1943 his widow was told that she was to be deported by the Gestapo, and she committed suicide. The Liebermann house in Pariser Platz was looted and its valuable collection of paintings stolen and scattered.


M.J. Friedlaender, Max Liebermanns graphische Kunst (19222); K. Scheffler, Max Liebermann (Ger., 1953); F. Stuttmann, Max Liebermann (Ger., 1961), includes plates; E. Hancke, Max Liebermann, sein Leben und seine Werke (1923), includes plates. add. bibliography: F. Berchtig, Max Liebermann (2005); M. Eberle, Max Liebermann 1847–1935. Werkverzeichnis der Gemaelde und Oelstudien, 2 vols. (1996; with catalogue raisonné of oil paintings); Hamburger Kunsthalle / Staedelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt a. Main / Museum der bildenden Künste, Leipzig, Max Liebermann. Der Rea list und die Phantasie (1997); J.E. Howoldt and U.M. Schneede, Im Garten von Max Liebermann, Exh. cat. Hamburger Kunsthalle und Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin (2004); R. Melcher (ed.), Max Liebermann. Zeichnen heisst weglassenArbeiten auf Papier, Exh. catalogue Saarlandmuseum Saarbrücken (2004); C.C. Schuetz, "Max Liebermann as a "Jewish Painter," The Artist's Reception in his Time," in: E. Bilsik (ed.), Berlin Metropolis. Jews and the New Culture, 1890–1918, Exh. cat. New York: The Jewish Museum (1999), 146–63; H. Simon (ed.), Was vom Leben übrig bleibt, sind Bilder und Geschichten. Max Liebermann zum 150. Geburtstag; Rekonstruktion der Gedaechtnisausstellung des Berliner Juedischen Museums von 1936 (1997).

[Alfred Werner]

Max Liebermann

views updated May 18 2018

Max Liebermann

The German painter Max Liebermann (1847-1935) founded the German impressionist school and coordinated its development with the modern movement in Paris.

Max Liebermann was born on July 20, 1847, in Berlin into a Jewish family. His admiration for the Dutch painter Jozef Israëls and the many Jewish themes found in his works, particularly those executed in the Netherlands, testify to his religious consciousness. Liebermann began to study art at the University of Berlin, but he did not enter an art academy until 1868. This was in Weimar, where he remained until 1873. Between 1871 and 1875 he made three visits to the Netherlands, a country which appealed to him and to which he returned many times later.

Liebermann started to paint as a realist, and the free brushwork of Frans Hals influenced him decisively. Liebermann settled in Paris in 1873, and his early contact with the Barbizon school (1874) made him an adherent of plein-air (open-air) painting. He moved to Munich in 1878 and in 1884 settled in Berlin, where he lived the rest of his life. He retained the Old Master touch with its subdued color scheme until 1890, and his genre scenes—pictures of people working and street and market themes—were strongly realistic.

Only after he discovered Édouard Manet did Liebermann's palette become lighter, but it never approached the brilliance of Claude Monet's or Pierre Auguste Renoir's. Liebermann's colorism remained more connected with German and French realist painting. The influence of Edgar Degas liberated his style as a draftsman and graphic artist, and finally Liebermann's own mature and personal style emerged in pictures of sporting events and riders on the beach, views of his garden in Wannsee, portraits of high society, and self-portraits.

In 1892 Liebermann founded the Malervereinigung XI, a predecessor of the Berlin Secession. His first retrospective exhibition was held in the Berlin Academy in 1897, to which he was elected a member in 1899. That same year he founded the Secession, whose chairman he remained until 1911. In 1920 he became president of the Berlin Academy of Arts and Letters; the Nazis removed him from this position in 1932.

Liebermann, who was also a resourceful and original writer on art theory and a personality of great charm and wit, was one of the first artists to be persecuted by the Nazis because of his religion. In 1933 he was forbidden to paint and to exhibit, and his pictures were removed from German public collections. He died on Feb. 8, 1935, in Berlin.

Further Reading

There are no full-length biographies of Liebermann in English. A short biography is in Peter Selz, German Expressionist Painting (1957). Liebermann is also discussed in Museum of Modern Art, German Art of the Twentieth Century (1957), by Werner Haftmann and others, and in Bernard S. Myers, The German Expressionists: A Generation in Revolt (1957). □