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Max Liebermann: 1847 - 1935

Max Liebermann was born in Berlin on July 20, 1847, the son of a German-Jewish businessman. He studied under a local painter and in 1869 enrolled at the Weimar School of Art. Three years later, at the age of 25, he exhibited for the first time, showing a painting, Woman Plucking Geese, that was dark in color and simple in construction. After a few months in Paris he spent the following summer in Barbizon, meeting Millet and seeing works by Corot, Courbet, Troyon, and Daubigny. The result was a perceptible brightening of his palette. The impression made on him by the realism of Millet and Courbet was a lasting one. His position in German painting was the equivalent of Millet's in the development of French art.

Liebermann next went to Holland, where he made a careful study of Frans Hals and allowed the influence of Joseph Isreals to strengthen his realist convictions. The visit seems to have opened his eyes for the first time to the possibilities of light and atmosphere. At this period his subjects, very similar to Millet's, were drawn mainly from orphanages and old people's homes. When he moved to Munich in 1878 his realistic painting Christ in the Temple aroused much criticism and was condemned by the clergy as irreverent. He did not try a religious subject again. In 1884 he settled once more in Berlin, returning to Holland for some months of every year until World War I.

The Impressionist movement had no visible effect on Liebermann's style until after 1890, when he was much attracted by the work of Edouard Manet. His palette became considerably more luminous and his handling of paint more fluid. But he was never an Impressionist in the strict sense of the word, for he never allowed light or color to dominate a picture. Instead, with Lovis Corinth, he became a leader of the Berlin Sezession of 1899 and helped to make it an effective channel of French influence into Germany. Through him, German painters turned away from their bourgeois sentimentality to a realism linked with the French tradition, and German art was back in the stream of modern developments.

Liebermann's first personal success was a medal awarded at the 1881 Paris Salon for An Aslyum for Old Men. Later he became president of the Berlin Academy. In 1897 and 1907 exhibitions of his work were held in honor of his 50th and 60th birthdays. In 1910 he came briefly into contact with Oskar Kokoschka. But although Liebermann to some extent influenced the Expressionist Max Beckmann, he could not understand the new art that was in process of evolution. He even helped to exclude Emil Nolde's work from the exhibition of the Berlin Sezession in that year. He died in Berlin in 1935.

Liebermann's inclusion in any Impressionist study steams from the fact that, without him, Impressionism would have either been delayed or have never arrived in Germany.

Image: Self-Portrait, 1925, West Berlin, Staatl. Museum

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