Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Whether By Design Or Happenstance

Max Liebermann (1847-1935)
Amsterdam Orphans In The Garden
Hamburg Kunsthalle

Oil On Canvas
46 5/8 Inches By 38 5/16 Inches


Liebermann, largely unknown outside Central Europe, was a very great painter. The artist mastered landscape painting, genre scenes and—late in life—portraiture.

Some like to classify Liebermann as an Impressionist, which I believe is an inaccurate characterization. Others like to classify Liebermann as an Early Modernist, another categorization I believe to be inaccurate.

Above all, Liebermann was, I submit, a Realist painter. His work is rooted in 19th-Century German Realist Painting—yet he was clearly influenced by various French schools of the second half of the 19th Century.

Liebermann was also a Wilhelmine painter through and through. Although he despised Wilhelmine politics and considered himself an Internationalist and a Cosmopolite, Liebermann—perhaps unknowingly—captured The Wilhelmine Era to perfection. Whether by design or by happenstance, Liebermann is unmistakably one of the three or four most quintessential Wilhelmine artists.

The irony is that, while The Wilhelmine Era was ongoing, Liebermann was viewed as much too revolutionary, far too French, and entirely out-of-step with the period. Today an opposite view prevails: Liebermann is considered too conservative, too German, and too-closely-tied to the conventions of his time.

During much of his life, Liebermann’s work was appreciated exclusively by connoisseurs. It was only once Alfred Lichtwark, perhaps the greatest art historian of the day, became in the 1890s an ardent advocate of Liebermann’s work that the artist’s reputation grew by leaps and bounds, in Germany and elsewhere.

From the early 1870s until the onset of World War I, Liebermann spent every summer in the Netherlands, working out-of-doors, all day, every day, no matter the weather.

One of Liebermann’s favorite subjects was the wards of the municipal orphanage in Amsterdam, housed in the former Saint Lucy’s Convent (and now home to The Amsterdam Museum).

For over twenty years, from 1876 onward, Liebermann painted dozens and dozens of canvases at the orphanage. “Amsterdam Orphans In The Garden”, from 1885, is one of the most renowned of Liebermann’s Dutch orphan paintings.

“Amsterdam Orphans In The Garden” is a riveting and ravishing work. A reproduction scarcely begins to do justice to the artist’s subtle-but-brilliant color scheme or his complete mastery of natural light.

We must have devoted half an hour, perhaps more, to a study of the painting while we were in Hamburg in 2006. At the time, the painting was hung in a large gallery devoted to nothing but Liebermann paintings—and “Amsterdam Orphans In The Garden” had been placed alongside Liebermann’s most famous work, “The Net-Menders”.

Magnificent as is “The Net-Menders”, I thought “Amsterdam Orphans In The Garden” to be the finer artwork.

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