Lesser-known German impressionists

The idea for this blog post started with a postcard which I recently rediscovered among letters sent home from my year abroad in the 1980s, bought on a visit to the Kunsthalle in Mannheim. The postcard is a reproduction of a painting by Fritz von Uhde (1848-1911), one of a number that he did of his three daughters and the family dog in the garden of his country house near Munich. It was the impressionistic treatment of the sunlight which drew me to it and which reminded me of more familiar works by French impressionist painters.

Die Töchter im Garten, 1906, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Knowing nothing about Fritz von Uhde, I found out that in Germany in his lifetime he was lauded, with exhibitions of his works and at least two books written about him. This set me wondering how many other German impressionist painters there might be who deserve to be better known. I was pleased to be able to explore several recent UL acquisitions, reflecting the fact that after years of neglect art historians are now regarding these artists as worthy of attention and exhibition space is being devoted to them across the whole of Germany. Indeed, the first exhibition of Uhde’s work since his death was held in 1998-1999 in Bremen and Leipzig and we have a copy of the catalogue: Fritz von Uhde: vom Realismus zum Impressionismus (S405:3.a.9.286).

Uhde also featured in a 2009-2010 exhibition in Bielefeld along with 34 other German impressionists, most of whom are unfamiliar names. More details can be found in the exhibition catalogue Der deutsche Impressionismus (S950.a.200.3985) and I will highlight a few of these artists in the rest of this blog post.

Most of the artists exhibited in Bielefeld were male, unsurprisingly as women at the end of the 19th century were excluded from studying at the major art academies and could only learn at one of the designated painting schools for female students. Perhaps the most successful female German impressionist is Maria Slavona (1865-1931) who studied alongside the better known Käthe Kollwitz in both Berlin and Munich before moving to Paris, where she lived with other artists in a bohemian commune – more can be found on this time in the memoir of her friend Rosa Pfäffinger, Die Pariser Bohème (1889-1895): ein autobiographischer Bericht der Malerin Rosa Pfäffinger (C205.c.8521). Slavona’s work was considered significant enough to merit an exhibition in 1912 by the reputed art promoter Paul Cassirer, and a painting of hers shown in 1927 at the Grosse Berliner Kunstausstellung was bought by the Nationalgalerie. Almost 100 years later this was included in another recent exhibition: Fighting for visibility: women artists in the Nationalgalerie before 1919 (2022.10.97)

Like Slavona, the work of Hermann Pleuer (1863-1911) was also shown at Paul Cassirer’s Berlin Kunstsalon (the multivolume Kunstsalon Cassirer (S950:01.a.150.1-6) gives much more detail). He was included too in Munich Secession exhibitions and in the 1900 Paris Exposition. Despite this acclaim, he travelled little and preferred to stay in Swabia where he came from. He became known chiefly as a painter of the railways, creating many pictures of Stuttgart station and of trains in the landscape, as well as later depicting industrial scenes of workers and workshops. On his death his obituary was written by Theodor Heuss, later President of West Germany. Pleuer’s work is covered in depth in Gabriele Kiesewetter’s doctoral thesis Hermann Pleuer 1863-1911 : Leben und Werk : die Entdeckung der Geschwindigkeit (S405:3.a.200.21).

Robert Sterl (1867-1932) was an artist who spent much of his life in and around his native Dresden, often depicting the landscape of the Elbe Sandstone Mountains and the quarrymen who worked there. His impressionist tendencies, however, were reinforced during a study tour in France, and he later made several trips to Russia and was a war painter on the Western Front. He was the subject of a 2019 exhibition which demonstrated the range of his work through around 70 paintings. We have a copy of the exhibition catalogue: Gesehen, erschaut und erlebt: der Dresdner Impressionist Robert Sterl (S950.b.201.6229)

Our most recent addition to works on German impressionism is Landschaften im Licht: der Impressionist Ludwig von Gleichen-Russwurm (S950.b.202.431), the catalogue accompanying an exhibition on until May 2022 in Würzburg. Ludwig von Gleichen-Russwurm (1836-1901), grandson of Friedrich Schiller, was described by the influential art critic Julius Meier-Graefe as the first to introduce impressionism into German painting. Initially it was the earlier Barbizon School* which influenced him on a visit to Paris in 1878, but later he saw French impressionists exhibited in Weimar and this led him to embrace the impressionist technique in his own work.

Another current exhibition, on until June 2022, is at the Museum Georg Schäfer in Schweinfurt, Bavaria. It is bringing to the fore the theatrical stage designs of Max Slevogt (1868-1932) and we have a copy of the catalogue on order, entitled Les Amusements: Max Slevogts Inspirationen durch Bühne und Literatur. Slevogt is one of the three names usually associated with German impressionism, the other two being Lovis Corinth and Max Liebermann (who will be the subject of a future blog post). Two major exhibitions of Slevogt’s work have taken place within the last ten years in Mainz and Hanover and we bought the catalogues for both:

(The cover image of Der deutsche Impressionismus above is also by Slevogt, his 1908 Dame am Meer.)

Finally, returning to less well-known names, Thomas Herbst (1848-1915) was a friend of Liebermann’s who studied alongside him. While Sterl painted near the river Elbe in Saxony, Herbst spent much time painting in the Elbe marshes further north near his native Hamburg and became known as a painter of cows. Indeed, the comprehensive catalogue raisonné of his work, published in 2015 to mark 100 years since his death, has more pages devoted to paintings of cows than of people: Thomas Herbst, 1848-1915: Werkverzeichnis der Gemälde, Ölstudien und  Aquarelle (S950.b.201.2779). 2015 also saw an exhibition of his work in Hamburg: Thomas Herbst, 1848-1915: Liebermanns Freund, Lichtwarks Hoffnung (S950.b.201.2616).

Katharine Dicks

*See Hinaus in die Natur!: Barbizon, die Weimarer Malerschule und der Aufbruch zum Impressionismus (S950.b.201.43) for more on the influence of the Barbizon school on German artists.

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