German, 1847–1935


Max Liebermann completed his secondary school education in Berlin and, at the age of 21, enrolled at the University of Berlin to study philosophy. By this time he had already decided to become an artist and unknown to his father – a prosperous industrialist – he opted to attend art courses under the painter Karl Steffeck. After only a year in the latter’s studio, he was judged competent enough to work on Steffeck’s monumental canvas Sadowa. Liebermann was aware that he required more in-depth tuition, however, and he left the following year for Weimar, this time with his father’s consent. There, he followed courses in drawing and composition under Thumann and took lessons from the Belgian painter Pauwels.

Liebermann’s first major composition was Women Plucking Geese, a painting widely regarded as scandalous but which nevertheless promptly found a buyer. With the proceeds of the sale, he moved to Paris, where he met the Hungarian artist Munkácsy. Although the events of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 were still fresh in French memories, Liebermann was well-received in the French capital and his talent soon acknowledged. By 1874, he had been welcomed into the circle around the Barbizon School, including Charles-François Daubigny, Camille Corot and Jean-François Millet (who died the following year). Millet’s work in particular, with its portrayal of farm labourers and working-class life, had a lasting impression on Liebermann and influence his subsequent work, though his colour palette was closer to that of Gustave Courbet.

At the insistence of his parents, Liebermann set out to return to Berlin in 1878; on the way, he broke a leg and spent a couple of months recuperating in Venice. There, he met several painters from Munich, including Franz von Lenbach, who persuaded him to settle in Munich. He left the Bavarian capital in 1884, however, and settled permanently in Berlin, where he married and accepted a post as principal of the fine arts academy.

Liebermann was initially inspired by the sight of peasants working in the fields and, like Millet, he was anxious to convey the simplicity and nobility of menial tasks, down-to-earth activities, neglected trades and modest interiors. His first major composition dated from 1873 and, as noted, triggered controversy not only in Berlin but elsewhere in Germany. In Weimar, Hamburg and his native Berlin, he was pilloried for showing ‘ugly old women’ working in a gloomy barn and performing the doubtless worthy but ultimately lowly task of plucking geese. Liebermann was promptly labelled a ‘disciple of the ugly’ and was scathingly dismissed as a ‘rhyparographer’, a term coined from the Greek to denote a painter of lowly and distasteful subject matter. Undaunted, Liebermann embarked on his next major work, Women in Canning Factory, a composition inspired by a visit to the Netherlands, where he had witnessed a dozen or so women working under deplorable conditions sitting at benches and cleaning and paring vegetables.

During his time in Munich, Liebermann painted an outsize Jesus among the Doctors, a composition exhibited in 1879. Although the jury commended his direct and ‘natural’ approach to the theme, some Bavarian clerics were up in arms: they railed against the painting and protested to the Bavarian Landestag with such vehemence that Liebermann vowed never to paint a religious subject again (a vow he duly kept, with the possible exception of his Benedicite of 1884). The reaction in Munich was such that he also resolved in future to send all his paintings directly to Paris. Thus, he submitted his Nursery School, Amsterdam to the 1880 Paris Salon, together with a reworking of his Canning Factory. Munkácsy had insisted that the original version of the latter painting was ‘too dark’ and had suggested that Liebermann lighten his blacks by the addition of bitumen to invest them with a ‘warmer and transparent quality’.

1880 saw Liebermann’s Weavers, followed by an Old Woman at Her Window and Old Age Home, Amsterdam, both painted in 1881. The latter composition secured him a medal, the first to be awarded to a German artist in France since 1871.

Max Liebermann’s body of work made Germany aware of fresh artistic currents in European painting, from the Naturalism of Courbet, Constantin Meunier and Millet to the Impressionism of Manet and Degas. There is ample justification for the claim that Liebermann was to Germany what Edouard Manet was to France.

Liebermann exhibited his work in both group and solo exhibitions as the occasion presented itself. The Belgian painter Verlat (whom he had known in Weimar) advised him to submit his Canning Factory for exhibition in Antwerp in 1873. The painting proved to be a great success and he was inundated by commissions from businessmen in France and Belgium. In 1876, he exhibited Labourers in a Turnip Field, a work featuring two men and seven women in a variety of astonishingly realistic postures. By this time, Liebermann was a member of the Cercle des XV, exhibiting on an annual basis at the Salon Petit in Paris and frequently at the Paris Salon proper. In 1917, he showed no fewer than 191 works at an exhibition in Berlin. An exhibition of his works In the Garden of Max Liebermann (Im Garten von Max Liebermann) was mounted in 2004 at the Kunsthalle in Hamburg (Benezit, Dictionary of Artists, Gründ, 2006).

Museum Collections:
Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL
Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, TX
Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg
Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, MA
Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg
J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY
Musée d’Orsay, Paris
Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY
National Gallery, London
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Neue Pinakothek, Munich
Tate Gallery, London
Teylers Museum, HaarlemThyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid

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Please contact us if you are interested in selling your Max Liebermann paintings or other artwork from the 19th century and early 20th century. 

Paintings for sale

Max Liebermann Paintings Previously Sold

MAX LIEBERMANN    Blumenstauden im Wannseegarten   Oil on board 19½ x 29¼ inches (49.5 x 74.5 cm.)  SOLD

Blumenstauden im Wannseegarten
Oil on board
19½ x 29¼ inches (49.5 x 74.5 cm.)

MAX LIEBERMANN    Portrait of a Lady   Oil on canvas 19 x 15 inches (48.2 x 38 cm)  SOLD

Portrait of a Lady
Oil on canvas
19 x 15 inches (48.2 x 38 cm)