The Arty Semite

Max Liebermann: Rediscovering a German Jewish Impressionist

By Benjamin Ivry

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Turn-of-the-century German Jewish artist Max Liebermann is still not a household name despite a major 2006 Jewish Museum retrospective. Further international attention may give him the acclaim he deserves.

Liebermann was recently featured in an exhibit, “German Impressionist Landscape Painting” which after being seen at Cologne’s Wallraf-Richartz Museum from April through August, 2010, traveled to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, where it was on display from September 12 to December 5, 2010. A lavish catalogue remains, from Yale University Press, showing how hard work and love for French painters such as Manet and Millet allowed Liebermann to evolve his own visual synthesis.

The dynamically bustling market scene, “Street in the Jewish Quarter of Amsterdam, 1905” included in the aforementioned exhibit, is but one of seven such canvases produced on this theme in a single year by Liebermann, who with typical thoroughness, rented an apartment with a panoramic view of local hondling, in order to optimally render its vitality. Liebermann lived until 1935, long enough to see his lofty status decline dramatically after Germany’s Nazi takeover.

Liebermann’s “Complete Writings” (Gesammelte Schriften) appeared in December, 2010 from Der Europäische Hochschulverlag, an academic press based in Bremen. Among Liebermann’s succinct articles reproduced therein is a 1901 appreciation of the 19th century Dutch Jewish naturalist painter Jozef Israëls. Liebermann specifically praises Israëls as a Jewish painter: “applying to nature all the inwardness of his nation and race.” He also points out that although Israëls’s heyday — he lived from 1824 to 1911 — was the “epoch of Bismarck… nothing was farther from [Israëls] than brutality.”

In a more personal appreciation from 1908, Liebermann pays tribute to the German Jewish art collectors and patrons Carl and Felicie Bernstein. At the apartment of these noted collectors of Impressionists, “you might think you were in a Paris salon,” Liebermann enthuses. Liebermann points to the Bernsteins’s Judaism as a source of their progressive esthetic enlightenment:

Frau Bernstein had the trait of her race, that she understood distinctions, subtle nuances of both soul and sensibility.

Liebermann adds a little anecdote in which during the height of the Dreyfus Affair, Felicie Bernstein invited Émile Zola to dinner and commiserated with him about how difficult Zola’s 1898 UK period of exile must have been, to which Zola retorted unexpectedly: “London was the happiest time of my life.” Many of Liebermann’s best works are similarly happy, whether seaside scenes or beer garden revels, despite the looming clouds of historical tragedy which were fast approaching.

Watch a video visit of Max Liebermann’s former Berlin home where art exhibits are frequently held today below.

Related articles. “Revisiting the Work of the First Emancipated German Jewish Artist” “Metropolita New York: Great Works”


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