Max Liebermann



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Max Liebermann (1847-1935) was one of the most important artists of modernism. Initially a ‘poor man’s painter’ dedicated to realism and naturalism, he later became a pioneer of a new art movement that paved the way for modernism. He turned his back on the official, emperor-loyal painting of the academy and today, alongside Max Slevogt and Lovis Corinth, is one of the most important representatives of German Impressionism.


Max Liebermann was born in Berlin on 20 July 1847, the son of a wealthy Jewish textile manufacturer. After taking drawing lessons from Carl Steffeck as a schoolboy, he studied at the Academy of Art in Weimar from 1868. It was here that he created his first major painting, ‘Die Gänserupferinnen’ (1872), which is now in the collection of the National Gallery in Berlin. During his years of study in Paris from 1874, he increasingly focussed on the life and work of ordinary people in the countryside.

Dutch 17th century painting also had a lasting influence on Liebermann’s painting during this time. From 1874, the artist regularly spent the summer months in Holland. In 1878, Liebermann moved to Munich, where he intensified his exploration of rural motifs. However, works such as ‘Potato Harvest in Barbizon’ (1875) and ‘Die Netzflickerinnen’ (1887/89) led to downright scandals, as neither the ruthless painting style nor the chosen subjects were considered worthy of art by his conservative contemporaries.


In 1884, Liebermann returned to his hometown of Berlin and married Martha Marckwald (1857-1943). Their only child, their daughter Käthe (1885-1952), was born in the summer of 1885. In the years that followed, Liebermann increasingly turned against the academicism of the German Empire. As early as 1892, he was a co-founder of the artists’ group “Vereinigung der XI”, which sought to organise independent art exhibitions outside the established art scene in Berlin. In 1898, Liebermann became co-founder and first president of the Berlin Secession. After Munich and Vienna, this was the third organisation of its kind to be established in Berlin. The Berlin Secession deliberately turned against the Prussian Academy of Arts and the Berlin Artists’ Association.

In the 1890s, Liebermann’s motifs and painting style changed: his palette brightened, the colours became more vibrant and he now favoured scenes of the upper middle classes. In the summer months, he painted beach and equestrian scenes in the Dutch seaside resort of Noordwijk, while in Berlin the artist developed into a sought-after portrait painter.

In 1909, the family acquired one of the last remaining plots of land in the so-called ‘Colonie Alsen’ on Wannsee. Liebermann had a summer house built here by Paul Otto Baumgarten. The garden was planned by his friend Alfred Lichtwark (1852-1914), director of the Hamburger Kunsthalle, in the spirit of the ‘garden reform’. Countless paintings from the period from 1910 onwards illustrate how fruitful the many summer sojourns at Wannsee became for Liebermann’s art.


In 1920, Liebermann was appointed President of the Prussian Academy. Despite this high honour, however, the last decades of his life were anything but untroubled. Anti-Semitism, which he had to contend with throughout his life, played an increasing role in German society after the First World War. The National Socialists’ seizure of power in January 1933 cemented this extremely threatening development. Max Liebermann’s death in February 1935 was officially passed over in silence and only a few people attended the funeral service. As a Jewish artist, his art was removed from German museums and his daughter Käthe had to flee abroad with her family. Martha Liebermann, however, stayed behind in Berlin and avoided imminent deportation by committing suicide in 1943.

After the Second World War, Max Liebermann was long forgotten as a representative of a bygone era. It was only towards the end of the 20th century that a broader interest began to emerge. The Max Liebermann Society was founded in 1995 with the aim of commemorating the work and world of this great artist in his villa on Wannsee. The house was opened as a museum in 2006 and since then it has enjoyed great popularity as a place of remembrance of this extraordinary personality and as a site of reconciliation with the German past.