Wilhelm Leibl
Biography of German Realist Figure-Painter.

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Wilhelm Leibl and Sperl Out Hunting
(1890-95) Neue Pinakothek, Munich.

Wilhelm Leibl (1844-1900)


Early Life and Training
Mature Style of Painting

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An influential contributor to 19th century German art, Wilhelm Leibl was a prominent exponent of figure painting associated with German Naturalism. His first canvases were influenced by Dutch Baroque painting, especially that of Rembrandt (1606-69) and Jan Vermeer (1632-75). Both his portrait art and his rural genre painting was characterized by simple compositions shorn of the sentimental romanticism typical of the era. The Critic and Portrait of Frau Gedon, both from 1868, are representative of his work, which is characterized by a very limited range of subjects in portraits and groups of figures. In 1869, he moved to Paris and worked with the painter Gustave Courbet (1819-77), one of the most original realist artists, who approved of and valued his work. Leibl immediately joined the Realism movement and produced paintings such as Old Parisian Woman and Cocotte, both from 1870. On the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War, he left Paris and returned to Germany. He settled in Munich until 1873 and made a habit of travelling through several Bavarian towns to paint portraits of peasants and ordinary people, insisting on portraying the details and the souls of human beings: Burgomaster Klein (1871) is from this period. To his simple compositions, he brought a great interest in light and the effects of chiaroscuro, which was always a chief element in his work. He was also a master of drawing and engraving. Between 1878 and 1881, he settled in the small German town of Berbling, and there he painted another his masterpieces, Three Women in Church (1881), a painting that reflects one of his artistic maxims - "human beings should be painted just as they are" - as well as his ongoing interest in 17th-century Dutch Realist genre painting. During the Weimar Republic, his work was enthusiastically reappraised by modern artists, specifically by the members of Die Neue Sachlichkeit notably Max Beckmann the celebrated portraitist.



Early Life and Training

Wilhelm Maria Hubertus Leibl was born in Cologne and, in 1861 at the age of 17 began his arts training under Hermann Becker, a local art teacher. In 1864 he enrolled at the Munich Academy of Art, where he studied under several artists including Avon Ramberg and Karl Theodor von Piloty. In 1869 he established a group studio, along with three other young painters, Theodor Alt, Johann Sperl and Rudolf Hirth du Frenes. It was during this time that Gustave Courbet, a major figure in mid-19th century French painting, came to Munich to exhibit his work, making a powerful impact on the local artists with his demonstrations of alla prima plein air painting. After studying Courbet's method, Leibl's paintings, which up to now had been inspired by 17th century Dutch Realist artists, became looser in both brushwork and composition, their subjects depicted with impastoed paint against dark backgrounds. In 1870, Leibl travelled to Paris to work alongside Courbet, and stayed for 9 months, during which time he met the influential painter Edouard Manet, who had already become the mentor of Impressionist painters like Monet and Renoir. As it was, his stay was interrupted by the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war, which necessitated his return to Munich.

Mature Style of Painting

Leibl remained in Munich for three years before living in a succession of rural communities in the Bavarian countryside: first at Berbling, 1878–81; then Aibling 1881–92; finally Kutterling 1892–1900. In Berbling, he painted what is probably his best-known work, the Three Women in Church (1881, Kunsthalle, Hamburg). Its vividly realist style is reminiscent of works by the great portraitist Hans Holbein (1497-1543) in its clarity and definition. Indeed, the period 1870-80 is known as his "Holbein period".

In contrast to the Romanticism then prevalent in Germany, Leibl employed a dispassionate style of painting in the manner of Courbet, depicting his peasant neighbours without sentimentality or anecdote. His usual practice was to paint directly onto the canvas without any preliminary sketching, and his unwavering commitment to painting people just as they were, earned him significant recognition in his lifetime, as well as a group of dedicated followers (known as the Leibl Circle) that included Hans Thoma, Wilhelm Trubner, Carl Schuch and Otto Scholderer.

In addition to his oil painting, Leibl completed a small number of etchings in a characteristically precise style. He also produced a quantity of high-class charcoal drawings, as well as chalk and pencil drawings. Leibl continued working up to his death in Wurzburg, at the age of 56.

Compare the career and painting style of Wilhelm Leibl with the more modern realist Max Klinger (1857-1920).


One of the best portrait artists of country folk, in the 19th century, Leibl had an influence on his contemporaries that far exceeded the number of masterpieces he produced. His realism - and that of his contemporary, the society portraitist Franz von Lenbach (1836-1904) - was well appreciated within the traditional world of academic art, and inspired younger artists such as the Impressionist Max Slevogt (1868-1932), among many others. Re-discovered by the "New Objectivity" German Expressionists like Max Beckmann and Otto Dix, - Leibl ranks alongside the Biedermeier artist Carl Spitzweg (1808-1885), the history painter Adolph Menzel (1815-1905), the symbolist Arnold Bocklin (1827-1901), the Secessionist Max Liebermann (1847-1935), and the Impressionist Lovis Corinth (1858-1925), as one of the key artists in 19th century Germany.

Paintings and sketches by Wilhelm Leibl can be seen in several of the world's best art museums, notably the Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne and the Pinakothek Museum, Munich.

• For biographies of other 19th century Realist artists, see: Famous Painters.
• For more about Realism in 19th century German painting, see: Homepage.

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