Franz von Lenbach
Biography of German Portrait Painter, Realism School.

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Portrait of Otto von Bismarck (1895)
Schleswig-Holstein Museum

Franz von Lenbach (1836-1904)


Youth and Training
Karl Theodor Piloty
Commissions for Count Schach
Portrait Painting

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used by Franz von Lenbach, see:
Colour Palette Nineteenth Century.

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Best Artists of All Time.

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Franz von Lenbach, see:
Modern Artists.


A highly successful figure in German art of the 19th century, Franz von Lenbach was one of the best portrait artists of his day, whose realism and solid characterization proved irresistible to the wealthy ruling classes of Prussia and Bavaria. Along with Wilhelm Leibl (1844-1900) and Max Klinger (1857-1920) he ranks among the top realist artists in Germany during the second half of the nineteenth century. After training at the School of Decorative Arts in Landshut, he studied under Karl Theodor von Piloty. Afterwards, he travelled to Rome, where he stayed for a year, drawing from life. He later settled in Munich and met Count Schach, a collector of great works of art, with whom he travelled to Spain and Italy, where he became familiar with the paintings of the great masters. Although he painted genre scenes and some landscapes, he excelled at portrait art and became the painter who was most sought after by the greatest personalities of the time. Kaiser Wilhelm II named him as his official portraitist, as German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck had done earlier. The series of Bismarck portraits, which was started in 1879, make up some of Lenbach's most noteworthy work. He produced innumerable portrait paintings, which are very true-to-life and display a great virtuosity of technique reminiscent of Venetian painting in general and Titian in particular. He was also greatly inspired by Velazquez, the great Spanish court portraitist of the 17th century. Unfortunately, Lenbach's own realist painting lacks the spontaneity of these painters and suffers from a certain degree of pomposity. His best known nineteenth century portraits, include those of Emperor Franz Josef, King Ludwig I of Bavaria, Emperor Wilhelm II, Otto von Bismarck, William Gladstone, Count Moltke, Richard Wagner, Count Schach, Pope Leo XIII and Johann Strauss.



Youth and Training

Born at Schrobenhausen, in Bavaria, the son of a master stone mason, he trained to join his father's profession at the Konigliche Landwirtschafts und Gewerbeschule in Landshut, after which he worked in the Munich workshop of sculptor Anselm Sickinger (1807–73). Meanwhile, his older brother Karl (1828–47) had taken up painting, and it was through him that Franz Lenbach got to know the animal painter Johann Baptist Hofner (1832–1913), a former student at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich. Hofner invited Lenbach to go sketching with him in the countryside and introduced him to plein-air painting. Overcoming opposition from his father, Lenbach studied for two semesters at the polytechnic at Augsburg (1852–3), and then spent several months in the studio of the Munich portraitist Albert Grafle (1807–89), during which time he devoted all his leisure hours to copying the Old Masters in the galleries of Munich and Augsburg. Finally, in 1854, he entered the Munich Academy of Fine Arts.

Karl Theodor Piloty

Already relatively accomplished in the technique of figure drawing when he entered the academy, he studied hard and made further progress until 1857 when he took classes given by the eminent history painter Karl Theodor Piloty (1826-86). It was at this time that he painted his first important work The Angel Appearing to Hagar in the Desert (1858), followed soon after by Peasants Trying to Take Shelter from a Thunderstorm in a Chapel (1858): both subsequently destroyed. Sale proceeds from the latter, however, as well as a modest travelling scholarship, enabled Lenbach to accompany Piloty on a trip to Rome, together with his younger brother, the lithographer Ferdinand von Piloty (1828–95), Theodor Schuz (1830–1900) and Carl Ebert (1821–85). While in Italy Lenbach made numerous pencil drawings, some of which he used as the basis for later oil paintings, such as the Arch of Titus (1860, Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest) and The Goatherd (1860, Schach Gallery, Munich).



Commissions for Count Schach

On his return to Munich, Lenbach was offered the post of Professor at the Academy of Art in Weimar - an offer he accepted - but only held the position until 1862, when he was commissioned by Count Schach to copy a number of masterpieces in some of the best art museums in Europe. Accordingly, he spent the years 1863 to 1868 copying the Old Masters. After visiting Italy, he travelled to Spain where he copied numerous pictures by Velazquez in the Prado, as well as some landscapes in the museums of Granada and the Alhambra (1868). While at the Alhambra he also completed his final landscape painting. This was followed by a trip to Tangiers.

Portrait Painting

After Tangiers, Lenbach devoted himself exclusively to portraiture. He had already exhibited several portraits at the great Paris Exposition, one of which won a third-class medal. As it was, his style of art and the solid way he portrayed his sitters was eminently suited to the times. His early clients featured King Ludwig I of Bavaria (1866), Richard Wagner (1872), and the Austrian Emperor Franz-Joseph I (1873). Stylistically, his influences included the Venetian Renaissance, the dispassionate realism of Velazquez, the texture and chiaroscuro of Rembrandt and the dash of Joshua Reynolds.

As his repuation spread, his clients numbered royalty, popes, cardinals, nobles, politicians, military leaders and artists, along with many of the most successful businessmen of the age. His most famous sitters were: Emperor Wilhelm I, Otto von Bismarck, William Gladstone, Count Moltke, Count Schach, Albert of Saxony, Princess Clementine of Coburg, Richard Wagner and Franz Liszt. His portraits of Otto von Bismarck, whom he painted about 80 times, are especially well known.

In 1882 Lenbach was made a noble, and given the title von Lenbach. After this he exhibited regularly in Munich and in Vienna: in 1900, one of his exhibits at the Paris Exposition won the Grand Prix for painting. By the beginning of the 20th century he was the best-known and highest-paid portrait painter in the German and Austrian-Hungarian Empire. His last years were spent between Munich, Vienna, and Berlin, interspersed with trips to Egypt and Rome.


An old style classical realist, Franz von Lenbach ranks alongside Adolph Menzel (1815-1905) and Wilhelm Leibl as one of the leading exponents of 19th century realism in Germany. And, arguably, it was the strength of the German realist school that inspired the new generation of Impressionist painters to anchor themselves securely within the naturalism of Barbizon. Indeed, so-called Impressionists like Max Liebermann (1847-1935), Max Slevogt (1868-1932), and Lovis Corinth (1858-1925), can also be regarded as Realists.

Works by Franz von Lenbach can be seen in many of the best art museums in Germany. In particular, see the collections in the Gemaldegalerie SMPK Berlin, the Gemaldegalerie Alte Meister Dresden, the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum in Cologne, the Pinakothek Museum in Munich, and the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

• For biographies of other German portrait artists, see: Famous Painters.
• For more about 19th century realism in Germany, see: Homepage.

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