Thursday, September 16, 2010

Three Women In Church

American museums’ holdings of German art are woeful.

American museums are hospitable venues for works by Hans Holbein The Younger and a small number of German Expressionist artists from the early 20th Century—but American public art collections are otherwise largely bereft of German art. It would be impossible to recreate the history of German art through American holdings, although a handful of institutions—most conspicuously, The Kimbell Museum and The National Gallery Of Art—are, belatedly, trying to make amends.

The reason for this shortcoming is simple: the finest American private collections (which went on to form the core collections of our finest museums) were acquired between the American Civil War and the Depression of the 1930’s, a period during which German art was virtually unknown among British and French art dealers—and it was through British and French art dealers that American robber barons made the bulk of their art purchases.

A prime example of an important German artist virtually unknown in the United States is Wilhelm Leibl (1844-1900), a German realist painter who spent his best years living among and painting the peasants of rural Bavaria. Leibl was a German Gustave Courbet, and Leibl’s work rivals the quality of his more famous French counterpart.

The importance of Leibl’s work was recognized in Germany during his lifetime: much of his oeuvre made its way into German public collections while the artist was still active. And yet Leibl paintings have made no headway in the English or French-speaking worlds (although Leibl artworks are much-admired in Russia).

Art scholars, as well as the artist himself, believed his greatest work to be “Three Women In Church”. A representation of three generations of women at worship, the deeply-moving “Three Women In Church” made Leibl famous overnight throughout Central Europe. The painting became instantly iconic—and it remains so today in German-speaking lands. The painting is as famous in Central Europe as “American Gothic” is in the United States. Postcards of “Three Women In Church” have been available since the year the masterwork was unveiled, and they remain bestsellers to this day.

Leibl worked on the painting for three years and six months. Meticulous attention was paid to the women’s devotional attire as well as to their individual expressions of piety. The attention to detail is reminiscent of Dutch Old Masters—and, fittingly, Vincent Van Gogh was one of the painting’s most ardent admirers.

“Three Women In Church” sneaks up on the viewer. A single quick glance at the painting reveals nothing, but the viewer is slyly drawn in by the remarkable detail of the women’s clothing and the church pews, after which attention shifts to the solemnity and sincerity of the facial expressions.

I first witnessed “Three Women In Church” at the Hamburg Kunsthalle during our trip to North Germany in November 2006. It was hung among other Leibl paintings, all of which were very fine, yet “Three Women In Church” was certainly the most riveting of the group.

We were pleased that this particular masterpiece was on display. During our time in Hamburg, many celebrated 19th-Century German paintings owned by the Kunsthalle were not on display—and this was because fourteen rooms of the Kunsthalle normally devoted to 19th-Century painting had been turned over to the once-in-a-lifetime Caspar David Friedrich exhibition, an epochal exhibition if ever there were one.

The richness and subtlety of “Three Women In Church” cannot be captured by photographic reproduction—yet a photograph at least can suggest the power and fascination of the painting.


Wilhelm Leibl (1844-1900)
Die Drei Frauen In Der Kirche
Hamburg Kunsthalle

Oil On Wood
45 1/4 Inches By 30 3/4 Inches


  1. You're right indeed, Andrew. The piece seems so simple on first glance but it keeps you looking and then the details hit you. Deceptively simple. Wish I could see the real thing one day! :o)

  2. If you like German art, the Hamburg Kunsthalle is well worth a series of visits.

  3. I am currently doing a research project for my humanities class. I happened upon this beautiful painting when I was studying realism. I instantly loved it. What are your thoughts regarding the meaning and symbolism of "Three women in Church". I have felt that these women are related, 3 generations possibly. They are women of faith who have followed the traditions of their mothers. I wonder where the men are? Do you know where I might look for Leibls' inspiration regarding this work? I hope someday to see the original!