Lesser Ury



Having grown up in poor circumstances, the painter and graphic artist Lesser Ury moved to Berlin as a child. After studying at the Düsseldorf Academy (1878), he went to Brussels in 1879 and then to Paris in 1880. He worked as an artist in the Flemish village of Volluvet and, after years of travelling, returned to Berlin in 1887, where he took up permanent residence. He initially encountered great difficulties in Berlin. Isolation and tragic loneliness in his later years led him to the brink of persecution mania. In 1921, Ury became an honorary member of the Berlin Secession. In addition to depictions from the Old Testament and symbolic images of Jewish fate, he initially painted workers’ pictures and village landscapes, later creating mainly Berlin scenes in oil, pastel, drawings and prints (Berliner Straßencafe am Abend, Im Tiergarten, Krumme Lanke, and Grunewald Landscapes), as well as travel impressions from Flanders, Thuringia, Holstein, Tyrol and Lake Garda. Lesser Ury’s pictures are of great colouristic charm, painted in a style similar to Impressionism. His works can be found in the National Gallery, Berlin, the Landesgalerie, Graz, and other galleries.

Leo Lesser Ury (born Leiser Leo Ury; * 7 November 1861 in Birnbaum, Province of Poznan; † 18 October 1931 in Berlin) was a German painter and graphic artist of the Impressionist Berlin Secession. His initial motifs were landscapes, cityscapes and still lifes; in his later period, he also created monumental paintings with biblical motifs.


Memorial plaque on the Nollendorfplatz underground railway building, Berlin

The son of a Jewish master baker, he came to Berlin in 1873. From 1879 to 1880, Lesser Ury studied painting under Andreas Müller and Heinrich Lauenstein at the Düsseldorf Art Academy, then in Brussels. He gained valuable experience in Paris with Jules-Joseph Lefebvre, among others, and explored Flanders and Munich. There he successfully applied to the Academy of Fine Arts, where he was accepted on the same day as Ernst Oppler. Even before Oppler, Ury moved to Berlin in 1887. From 1897 to 1901 he worked in the studio at Lützowstraße 82[1] and from 1920 until his death he had a studio and flat at Nollendorfplatz 1 in Berlin-Schöneberg. In 1890, Lesser Ury was awarded the Michael Beer Prize on the recommendation of Adolph Menzel, which came with a scholarship from the Berlin Academy of Arts. This enabled him to spend several months travelling through Italy, including a stay at the Villa Strohl-Fern in Rome. Lovis Corinth brought Ury to the Berlin Secession. A great patron was the industrialist Carl Schapira.

Ury, more of a loner as a person, also followed a solitary path in art, while his Berlin contemporaries Max Liebermann, Max Slevogt and Lovis Corinth shared common artistic interests. Perhaps for competitive reasons, Max Liebermann, the president of the academy and influential spokesman of the art scene, was a thorn in the side of Ury’s increasing fame: Liebermann tried by all means to block Ury’s career. Ury was only able to exhibit regularly and successfully at the Berlin Secession when Corinth became Liebermann’s successor. The enmity between Liebermann and Ury has been passed down in numerous anecdotes. According to one of these stories, Ury spread the rumour that he had painted the light effects in Liebermann’s painting Flax Barn in Laren (1887). Liebermann responded to this in a letter to Maximilian Harden with the bon mot: ‘I would only call the public prosecutor if Mr Ury claimed that I had painted his pictures.’[2]

In 1921, he became an honorary member of the Secession. During this decade, Ury travelled to London, Paris and various German cities several times. The artist brought back a wealth of new paintings from each trip. Shortly after a trip to Paris in 1928, the painter’s health increasingly deteriorated due to a heart attack. The Nationalgalerie and Secession wanted to honour Ury’s life’s work on his 70th birthday (1931), but the artist died three weeks earlier in his Berlin studio.

Ury’s funeral took place on 21 October 1931; the eulogy was held by his long-time friend, Rabbi Dr Joseph Lehmann. Lesser Ury’s grave of honour is located in field G 1, row of honour at the Berlin-Weißensee Jewish cemetery. A street in the Berlin district of Moabit was named after him in 1979 (Lesser-Ury-Weg)[3].

See also: List of graves of honour in Berlin


Lesser Ury’s favourite motifs included his typical coffee house and street scenes as well as landscapes staged with masterful reflections of air and light. He also created flower paintings, still lifes and, in his later work, monumental history paintings with motifs of biblical origin.

Berlin city scenes

Lesser Ury, ca. 1920

Street scene in the fog in front of Berlin Cathedral

After years of artistic training in Düsseldorf, Brussels, Paris and Munich, Lesser Ury finally settled in Berlin in 1887. His fascination for metropolitan life had already been awakened during his stay in Paris. From the very first moment, however, Ury felt a very special affinity for the cosmopolitan city of Berlin. This was reflected so strongly in his art that on his 60th birthday he was honoured by the Lord Mayor of Berlin as an ‘artistic glorifier of the imperial capital’.

In the pulsating, rapidly developing metropolis on the Spree, Ury found colourful boulevards, shining coffee houses and the hectic hustle and bustle of countless passers-by. Modern urban life, as it poured into the streets at night, illuminated by gas lanterns and later by electric light, provided the painter with a wealth of fascinating motifs. In Lesser Ury’s work, streets and cafés are the scenes of chance encounters. In his atmospheric scenes, elegantly dressed gentlemen with top hats and canes, young ladies in fashionable hats and long coats trimmed with fur collars, passers-by waiting for horse-drawn carriages or hurriedly crossing rain-soaked carriageways. Warm light from the windows of shops and cafés blurs with the fleeting shadows of dimly rendered urban canyons.

City dwellers, strollers and travellers from all over the world inspired him to create his unconventional compositions, executed in a dark colour palette. His atmospheric cityscapes, inspired by new visual impressions, not least changed familiar viewing habits. It is therefore not surprising that Ury’s street scenes, which today are among the greatest masterpieces of German Impressionist painting, irritated or sometimes even disturbed his audience at the time.