From 1870 to 1914 the German artist Max Liebermann spent many happy summers at Scheveningen in The Netherlands with his friend the artist Jozef Israëls.
The Gemeentemuseum is celebrating the artist’s special relationship with the country in an exhibition which celebrates his famously sun drenched compositions.
It didn’t take long for The Netherlands to steal Liebermann’s heart. Lagging far behind the industrialised nations of France, Britain and Germany he found in the country numerous small villages in which time appeared to have stood still and which made him yearn for a simpler past.
In Scheveningen he painted first the fishing village itself and then sunny scenes of the newly fashionable lifestyle emerging amongst the leisured classes – tennis players under a cloudy blue sky, bathers and riders on the beach.
Further afield in Amsterdam he found inspiration in Artis Zoo which became a favourite subject. The city’s orphanage also attracted his attention and his exquisitely detailed portrait of the orphan girls in their striking red and black uniforms and white caps would be admired from Paris to Berlin.
Under the influence of French Impressionism his brushwork became much looser from the 1890s onwards, as evidenced in The Artist’s Studio (1902). This new approach would make him the figurehead of German Impressionism, although many Germans initially found his work too French for their taste. However around the turn of the century his fame began to grow after he co-founded the Berlin Secession in the mould of the Munich and Vienna movements. Soon his paintings were fetching more than Monet’s.
World War One brought an end to the freedom of movement of this most internationally minded of artists. The conflict was welcomed from Berlin to London and for a time Liebermann too was swept along in a tide of misguided patriotism. However he soon became disillusioned when the full horror of war struck home.
Post war his international outlook came to be seen as an advantage. When he was made Director of the Berlin Academy in 1920 his network of European connections helped him to liberalise one of the last bulwarks of cultural conservatism.
The growing political and social tensions of the 1920s and 30s initially had no impact on Liebermann’s life or work. On his 80th birthday in 1927 he was celebrated with a major exhibition, declared an honorary citizen of Berlin and featured on the cover of Berlin’s leading illustrated magazine.
Six years later, however, Liebermann watched in disgust from the window of his Berlin apartment as a torchlight procession celebrated Hitler’s rise to power. As a Jewish artist his position at the Academy soon became untenable. He resigned in protest at their refusal to show Jewish artists but would have been forced to do so in any case due to the new laws preventing Jews from having public positions.
When he died two years later his death was not even mentioned in the media and no member of the Academy attended his funeral. It would have been simply impossible to properly commemorate a Jewish artist who painted Dutch scenes in the style of French Impressionists at that time. Although despite the Gestapo’s attempts to prevent it, more than 100 friends and family did gather.
In the years after the war Liebermann’s work began to be reappraised and he eventually became such a firm favourite with the German public that his artworks are very rarely allowed to leave Germany.
Those lucky enough to be in The Netherlands for the duration of this exhibition would be advised to take full advantage.
Max Liebermann Impressions of Summer is at The Gemeentemuseum, Den Haag from25th March – 24th June 2018