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Max Liebermann - Biography and Legacy

German Painter

Born: July 20th, 1847 - Berlin, Germany
Died: February 8th, 1935 - Berlin, Germany
Movements and Styles:
Art Nouveau

Biography of Max Liebermann


The second child of four, Max Liebermann was born in 1847 in Berlin to Louis Liebermann, a wealthy Jewish manufacturer, banker and councilor, and Philippine Liebermann (née Haller). In 1860, The Liebermann family bought the "Dannenberg'sche Kattun-Fabrik", one of the leading

companies for the production of cotton in Europe. Both parents were prominent members in the German business world and their son enjoyed an affluent upbringing in a bourgeois home in Pariser Platz, near the Brandenburg Gate. He received an excellent education as well as the self-confidence of growing up in a financially secure family.

Liebermann was raised as an observing Jew, but was afforded a more secular education, one that complimented his parents' busy lives and prepared him for a future career in business. For instance, Saturday was not treated as a day of rest because schools and offices in Berlin were open for business on Saturday mornings. Through his school education, Liebermann developed self-control, discipline and an unrelenting work ethic that he would carry into his art practice.

Liebermann and his siblings attended a makeshift class in a Berlin Gymnasium where they were taught Latin and Greek (though they were not taught Hebrew). As an assimilated Jew, he described this element of his education as "Prussian," and drew on the 16th century Germanic state to articulate his feelings and ideas. From the age of nine, Liebermann began to exhibit an interest in the arts. Although his parents tried to discourage their son's "folly", painter Carl Stiffest took note of his artistic abilities and encouraged him to continue with painting into his teenage years.

Early Training and Work

Max Liebermann (1863)

Prompted by his parents, Liebermann enrolled at the University of Berlin to study Law and Philosophy. However, he remained passionate about art and between 1866 and 1868 secretly resumed his education with Steffeck. While Steffeck was pleased with his student's progress, Liebermann felt that he was not getting a complete arts education and enrolled in the Weimar Art School, where he studied drawing and painting, between 1868 and 1872. He had finally won the tempered approval of his father in his pursuit of a career in art. He travelled next to Holland (the first of several visits) in 1871 and by his own admission it was in Holland that he truly found his vocation as a painter. During his education he also yearned to work with Belgian painter Gustaf Wappers, who was well known as an expert colorist. He finished his first canvas in 1873 entitled Women Plucking Geese, which yielded considerable scorn within the art establishment who dubbed him the "apostle of ugliness." However, a buyer purchased the painting and Liebermann used the proceeds to fund a trip to Paris that same year.

Max Liebermann at age 25 (1872)

Once in Paris, Liebermann became interested in the work of French Realist Gustave Courbet and made the acquaintance of Hungarian painter Mihály Munkácsy, whom he followed in manner for a short period. Liebermann also received news that renowned German artist Adolph Menzel requested a meeting with him. He greatly admired Menzel and upon his return from Paris, met with him. Liebermann also travelled to Barbizon, a small French village, where he encountered the Barbizon School and met with its founder Jean-Francois Millet. Though from sound bourgeois stock himself, Liebermann took on board Millet's noble socialist principles. However, whereas Millet tended to represent the rural working classes as heroic figures, Liebermann approached the same subjects without embellishment or unnecessary sentiment. After his return to Germany, Liebermann continued with his travels, spending summers in Holland, where he became fascinated by the slow-paced lifestyle and the atmospheric landscape.

Liebermann also travelled to Italy where he stayed in Venice for two months and met with Munich-based painter Franz von Lenbach. In 1878, he relocated to Munich, solidifying his status as a serious progressive artist. In the early 1880s, he enjoyed the culture and continued art patronage Munich had to offer, visiting museums and galleries and forming friendships that would last the rest of his life. He resettled in Berlin in 1884 and remained there until his death. He married Martha Marckwald in 1884. They parented one child, Marianne Henriette Käthe, in 1885.

Mature Period

During the 1890s Liebermann continued to live and paint in Berlin (spending his summers in Holland). Following the death of his mother in 1892, and his father soon thereafter in 1894, Liebermann was financially and emotionally liberated from his father's lingering trepidations about his status as an artist. He moved into his family home in Pariser Platz (where he lived out the remainder of his life).

In 1898, Liebermann became the President of the Berlin Secession, an art club that was founded as an alternative to the conservative Prussian Art Association. It was formed of sixty-five Berlin artists who sought to digress from traditional and academic art and was instrumental in Berlin's transition from imperial metropolis to an artistic hub during the turn of the century. It followed secession groups in France (better known as the "Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts"), Munich and Vienna. The most influential of these was the Vienna Secession founded in 1897 and led by the great Symbolist painter Gustav Klimt. The group placed strong emphasis on architecture and design and played a major part in the burgeoning Art Nouveau movement and the flowering of modern design. Later on, the Vienna Secession attracted the likes of Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka, two of the greatest exponents of Expressionism.

The art of Germany was strongly affected by the Secession, moving towards more modern and progressive art styles including Art Noveau and Impressionism. However, German art was not generally influenced by the French impressionists, and Liebermann was one of the leading proponents of Impressionism in Germany having drawn on the paintings of Édouard Manet and Edgar Degas. However, because of rising anti-Semitism in Germany, Impressionists such as Liebermann, Max Slevogt, Lovis Corinth and August von Brandis stood accused of transposing international ideas into German art. Liebermann's art and life during the time of the Secession was thus riddled with inner conflict between his conservative Prussian upbringing, his Jewish heritage, and his admiration for international art styles. This was most evident after Liebermann organized a politically courageous show of new German art, for which was awarded the French Legion of Honor, though in the event, the repressive German government would not let him travel to France to accept the award.

Despite the interference of the state, Liebermann persevered, bringing Berlin to the forefront of the art world as founder and leader of the Verein der Elf (Club of Eleven) and furthered the reach of the Berlin Secession. However, he also maintained mainstream relevance through his extensive network of artistic contacts, and in 1897 the very traditional Prussian Academy of Art recognized his fiftieth birthday with a major art exhibition. His art thus came to represent both the past and future of Berlin art.

Portrait of Max Liebermann by Nicola Perscheid (1905)

In the first decade of the twentieth century, Liebermann's range of artistic subjects became more constricted as he focused more on portrait and still-life representations. He remained a prominent Berlin artist, but he was not the same champion of modernism and artistic progression that he was prior. Because of Liebermann's French associations, he still had numerous confrontations with Prussian conservatives and government officials. Yet despite his involvement with German politics, Liebermann's output remained constant; between 1900 and 1910 he averaged 28 oil paintings per year in addition to numerous sketches, prints, lithographs and pastels.

Late Period

Due to his career success at the turn of the century, Liebermann had become a part of Germany's wealthiest echelon. In 1909, he purchased land on the Wannsee lake with his own earnings. There he built a stately home and called on the lush scenery for artistic inspiration. However, he was still subject to criticism within Berlin and in 1911 he resigned as President of the Berlin Secession. After the outbreak of World War I (in 1914) Liebermann, with a number of other painters, decided to try to work with the government to uphold cultural unity in Germany and to help promote victory on the warfront. Liebermann did so by contributing to a journal entitled Kriegszeit (Wartime) that was issued by his friend Paul Cassirer. He contributed to the journal for several years, creating lithographs and fostering German patriotism and unity.

At the end of World War I, Germany and its art scene was emaciated. Liebermann had hoped that in the wake of military defeat, Germany would become a more liberal society. He was indeed a proponent of liberalism and sparked debates in order that political, cultural and ethical disagreements might result in civilized dialogue. However, because of his intellectual focus he was (mistakenly) thought of by many as elitist. Nevertheless, for his eightieth birthday, Liebermann held a party for one hundred guests at Wannsee's Swedish Pavilion, where he was presented with the key to Berlin by the mayor. In 1933, as the Nazis Party intensified their scrutiny of him, Liebermann resigned his post as president of the Academy. Soon after, the Gestapo began removing his paintings from museum walls and confiscating them from private collections. Deeply affected by the menacing shift in German politics, he withdrew from public life but continued to paint his gardens, self-portraits and portraits of family members until his death in his Pariser Platz home in 1935.

The Legacy of Max Liebermann

The Liebermann Villa on Lake Wannsee

Liebermann is regarded by many as one of the most instrumental proponents of artistic and political modernism in Germany. He has been cited alongside Courbet, Monet, Manet and Degas as an important member of early modernism and Impressionism in Europe. His technique, artistry and talent were admired throughout the 20th century. Meanwhile, some of his most notable achievements have been in his role as a cultural spokesperson. His input had allowed Berlin to become an influential art hubs at the turn of the 20th century. In fact, in 2005 Mason Klein, the curator of New York's Jewish Museum, stated that Liebermann's cultural leadership created a public artistic forum in which traditional and new art institutions were able to interact.

Despite being of a privileged background himself, Liebermann's work was also praised by officials of the German Democratic Republic during the mid-20th century for its honest depictions of rural labor. He has had numerous commemorative exhibitions - Liebermann's work can be found in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Musée d'Orsay in Paris - and his villa in Wannsee was converted in 2006 into a museum which also holds exhibitions. Liebermann's work has also been regarded as seminal for the development of Impressionism in Germany and Europe, and he remains a prominent figure within the pantheon of modern European artists.

Despite being highly regarded amongst his peers, and a VIP within the German artistic community at large, his death went unreported by the press which was now under Nazi control. Consequently, his funeral passed without representation from the Prussian Academy of Arts. Yet despite taking place under the close scrutiny of the Gestapo, more than 100 guests attended his funeral including Hans Purrmann, Otto Nagel, Bruno Cassirer, Georg Kolbe, and Adolph Goldschmidt.

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Content compiled and written by Charlotte Davis

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd

"Max Liebermann Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Charlotte Davis
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd
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First published on 16 Jul 2019. Updated and modified regularly
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