Max Liebermann Biography

Max Liebermann




Painter and printmaker Max Liebermann was born on July 20, 1847, the son of a prosperous Jewish fabric manufacturer turned banker. His formal higher education began in law and philosophy at the University of Berlin in the late 1860s, but his interest tuned to art after graduation and he took up studies in painting, drawing, and intaglio printmaking in Weimar beginning in 1869. Travels took him to Paris, where he studies in 1872, and then on to the Netherlands in 1876. He became friends with artists Kathe Kollwitz, Goerge Kolbe, and Hans Purrmann, among others. His pursuits were interrupted by the Franco-Prussian war in which he served as a medic. 

He returned to art following the war, first living in Munich until 1874 when he returned to, and finally settled in, Berlin. At this time, Impressionism was on the rise in Europe, and he was drawn to the new genre, building a collection of works in the home he shared with his wife, Martha Marckwald. He began to paint in the style using his surroundings as his inspiration, as well as taking an interest in portraiture using local friends and prominent residents as subjects. His Jewish background made him hesitant to portray any religious scenes, as was popular among many of his Chirstian peers. However in 1879 he painted one image of a young Jesus, titled "The 12 Year-Old Jesus in the Temple with the Scholars," depicting him as Jewish in appearance. This caused an uproar in the salon world, but did not diminish his popularity. He would go on to paint portraits of such luminaries as Albert Einstein and Paul von Hindenburg.

Among his solo exhibitions was a major retrospective at the Prussian Academy of Arts on his 50th birthday. In 1896 he was elected to the Academy, and from 1899 to 1911 he was a leader in the Berlin Secession movement. He was an outspoken advocate for the separation of art and politics, which, along with his promotion of modern genres such as Impressionism, Expressionism, and French Realism, made him a target of conservative ire. Along with Max Slevgot, Lovis Corinth, and Ernst Oppler, the Berlin Secession remained a popular aspect of German modernism despite the eventual rise in conservative power and it helped to usher in some of Germany's most important and revolutionary contributions to European modern art. 

Libermann continued to work well into his later years, and in 1928, at age eighty-one, his work was selected for competition at the 1928 Summer Olympics. By then the elected president of the Prussian Academy of Arts, he enjoyed only a few more years of artistic acclaim before the oppression of the Nazi regime in the early 1930s began to take its toll. He resigned in 1933 when the Academy was banned from exhibiting Jewish artists, and, despite his immense popularity for the majority of career, he died in 1935 to limited fanfare, as the major German publications refused to report his passing. Many of his confiscated works were never found. Ten years later his wife, bedridden following a stroke, committed suicide after learning of the Gestapo's intent to deport her to the infamous Theresienstadt concentration camp. For a time, the fate of Liebermann's work hung in the balance.

As Europe recovered from the war and the laborious process of recovering and reestablishing looted and stolen artworks began to take effect, a renewed interest in Liebermann's work brought his name to the forefront once again in the 1970s. In 2005 the Jewish Museum of New York, along with the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angele, held the first major American retrospective of his work, and in 2006 the Max Liebermann Society opened a permanent museum of his works at his villa, Haus Libermann, in Berlin. In 2011, a painting loaned to a Jewish museum, then looted during the war, in Berlin in the 1920s was recovered and returned to his estate by the Israel Museum.