German Post-Impressionism
Post-Impressionist Painting in Germany.

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The Parrot Man (1902)
Folkwang Museum, Essen.
German post-Impressionist painting
by Max Liebermann.

Post-Impressionism in Germany (c.1880-1910)


German Post-Impressionist Art: In Brief
German Impressionism
Edvard Munch in Germany (1892-5)
Ferdinand Hodler
Max Liebermann
Lovis Corinth
Artist Colonies: Worpswede and Dachau
Paula Modersohn-Becker
Idealism versus Naturalism

Island of the Dead (1886)
Museum of Modern Art, Leipzig.
A work of Romantic symbolism
(post-Impressionist idealism)
by Arnold Bocklin.

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German Post-Impressionist Art: In Brief

In Germany the absence of a strong tradition of Impressionism, combined with the lack of any dominant artistic centre, produced a relatively mild form of Post-Impressionism, compared to France. True, the Norwegian expressionist Edvard Munch caused a commotion in Berlin in 1892 with such stark works as Sick Child (1885–6; National Gallery, Oslo), which resonated with avant-garde circles. But the predominant style among modern artists in Germany remained Naturalism, as exemplified by the works of Hans von Marees and Lovis Corinth. (See also: Post-Impressionism in Holland.) A small number of painters, like the Swiss-born Arnold Bocklin and Ferdinand Hodler, who worked mainly in Germany, moved from Naturalism to Symbolism, as shown by Hodler's Eurhythmy (1895, Kunstmuseum, Berne). An important figure behind the introduction of modern French painting into Germany was the art critic Julius Meier-Graefe, who did much to ensure that the works of Van Gogh, Gauguin and the other French Post-Impressionist painters came to the attention of the German public. In addition, visits by artists between France and Germany such as Alexei von Jawlenski, Paul Serusier, Maurice Denis, Jan Verkade, Paula Modersohn-Becker, and others, also contributed to an awareness of French Post-Impressionist painting within the forthcoming expressionist movement in Germany.

Ecce Homo (1925)
Neue Pinakothek, Munich.
German post-Impressionist painting
by Lovis Corinth.

For details of art movements
and styles, see: History of Art.


"Post-Impressionist schools are flourishing, one might say raging in Switzerland, Austro-Hungary and most of all Germany, But so far as I have discovered they have not added any positive element to the general stock of ideas." These words were written by the art critic Roger Fry (1866-1934), in his introduction to the catalogue of the 2nd Post-Impressionist Exhibition held in London in 1912. The show included English and Russian paintings hung next to masterpieces by Cezanne and Gauguin, Picasso and Matisse. Fry was expressing the prejudice of the English against foreign art that was not French, and made an exception only for Russia. (Fry also ignored the "British" Scottish Colourists.) He was right to say that Post-Impressionism was 'raging' in Germany, and, allowing for the looseness of the term, it had been since the 1880s. Centres, responding in many different ways to impulses coming from France, were to be found in almost every sizeable German city, in Munich and Berlin, Dusseldorf and Hamburg, and also in smaller towns such as Weimar, Darmstadt and Dresden. Each had its individual artistic characteristics.


Germany, politically united since 1870 under the Prussian monarchy, remained in many ways culturally fragmented, and although Berlin was to play an increasingly important and aggressive role in the art life of Germany in this period, it was never the undisputed centre as was Paris or London. This diffusion makes German Art of the 19th Century more complex and fuller of internal contradictions than that of France. It is no coincidence that the history of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism in France has been discussed and understood either in terms of technical mastery and innovation, or as a product of the life of the artist and his interaction with his friends, while art in Germany has often been viewed as a symptom of the cultural, even political world in which it was created. Few systematic studies of individual artists exist. Even in the case of Edvard Munch (1863-1944), the best known and most studied of the artists under consideration here, the catalogue raisonne, which alone can give a complete survey of the artist's work, is lacking. German painters like Max Liebermann, Lovis Corinth, Max Slevogt (1868-1932), and many other artists working in Germany have been less studied, and the difficulty in getting an overview is greater.

German Impressionism

Impressionism had a strange history in Germany; indeed it is arguable that the very expression is misleading. Although artists like Manet, Renoir and Monet were well known by the end of the century, their direct influence on the so-called Impressionist painters in Germany was not profound. Liebermann, for example, evolved his style partly through his admiration for German realist painting as done by artists like Wilhelm Leibl (1844-1900), who in turn had benefited greatly from contact with Gustave Courbet (1819-77), and the direct foreign influences on his stylistic evolution were from the quiet naturalism of the French Barbizon school and Dutch Hague school. He visited Barbizon in 1874 to be near Jean-Francois Millet (1814-75) and in the 1880s he spent several summers in Holland working with Jozef Israels (1824-1911). The German painters who visited Paris in the 1880s knew little of their French Impressionist contemporaries, with the possible exception of Edouard Manet (1832-83). Not until Neo-Impressionism is there a clear and unambiguous link with France in German painterly technique, and even this was in the first instance mediated by the Belgian Henri Van de Velde (1863-1957), before being transmitted to artists such as Paul Baum (1859-1932), Christian Rohlfs (1849-1938) and Curt Herrmann. What is known as German 'Impressionism' has its roots partly in the early paintings of the Berlin artist Adolph Von Menzel (1815-1905), and partly in the work of realists based in Munich in the 1860s and 1870s - Wilhelm Leibl, Hans Thoma (1839-1924) and Wilhelm Trubner. However strands of Symbolism and Idealism derived from Romanticism were never far from the surface in the 1880s. Artists such as Arnold Bocklin (1827-1901) and Hans Von Marees (1837-1887) were the admired though often controversial models who exerted an influence not dissimilar to that of Puvis de Chavannes (1824-98) in France. The younger generation in the 1880s thus had to contend with huge stylistic contradictions which were not resolved until the very end of the century.

In addition to these stylistic contradictions there were also social pressures. The Impressionists and Post-Impressionists in France initially reached a relatively narrow public, while the German painters, like larger fish in smaller ponds, became the focus of considerable attention if they were reasonably talented! Liebermann, for example, played an active role in society from an early age, founding exhibiting institutions and mixing with the new social and economic elites that were rapidly developing in Germany. Academic painters such as Anton Von Werner (1843-1915) and their champions in the establishment opposed the 'Impressionists' and Kaiser Wilhelm II personally denounced their work as 'plein-air painting' (Freilichtmalerei). One of these painters was Corinth, who demonstrates this tension between realism and Idealism in his exuberant The Childhood of Zeus (1905, Kunsthalle, Bremen). It represents his own wife and son - a typical Wilhelmine family - but faintly disguised in a mythological setting. Only two artists resolved this contradiction between modern life and myth that was the fundamental artistic search in the 1880s and 1890s. Neither painter was German. Both, however, played an influential role in Germany and found their most important platforms there. They were a Norwegian, Munch, and a Swiss, Hodler.

Edvard Munch in Germany (1892-5)

Edvard Munch is the only northern artist of this period who has gained a comparable international status to the great Post-Impressionist painters working in France. His importance lies in his creation of a shocking and archetypal image of an alienated northern European society, which has obvious affinities with the work of Strindberg and Ibsen, two great Scandinavian writers who, like Munch, extracted a universal mythic potential out of their bourgeois Scandinavian milieu. All three were first acclaimed abroad in Germany. Munch's landscapes, interiors and portraits all reflect that dark enclosed environment where physical and spiritual light were at a premium. Although Munch was recognized as a talent in Norway at an early age, it was in Germany that he found a large enough stage from which to make his first major contribution to modern art. Like painters from all over Europe he studied in Paris, where, in the late 1880s, he saw the work of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, quickly absorbing the lessons of their art. After a brief period in which his work reflected the objective approach of the Impressionists (as in Rue Lafayette, 1891, National Gallery, Oslo), he developed a bold colouristic symbolism influenced by the work of Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) and his Pont-Aven circle, which he used to convey scenes full of psychological drama.

In 1892, Munch, who had just had his second one-man exhibition in the Norwegian capital, Christiania, was invited to exhibit at the Association of Berlin Artists (Verein Berliner Kunstler), the principal exhibiting society in Berlin for those artists working in a 'realist-impressionist' manner. His paintings were publicly described as Ibsenish mood paintings (Ibsen sche Stimmungbilder). They caused a critical outrage - the first of several that Munch was to provoke when his pictures were shown in various parts of Germany. These works played an important part in encouraging German artists to experiment with new styles and techniques. The members of the Verein, shocked by the succes de scandale in the press which marked the appearance of the paintings at the exhibition, voted by 120 to 105 to have the pictures removed. Munch had his defenders, among them Liebermann and the art critic Julius Meier-Graefe, who more than any other critic was responsible in this period for supporting every stylistic development in painting and various styles of applied art as it arose, whether from France, from England or within Germany itself. Munch's supporters even included a few rich young art collectors. Encouraged by his succes de scandale, he decided to settle in Berlin where he soon found a place in the intellectual circle around Strindberg and the Polish Decadent novelist Stanislaw Przybyszewski. In his paintings and prints Munch began a period of intense creative activity, and conceived many themes that were to recur throughout his life, including the Frieze of Life, a cycle on love and death, of which Ashes (1894, Nasjonalgalleriet, Oslo), Puberty (1894, Nasjonalgalleriet, Oslo), Jealousy (1895, Rasmus Meyers Sammlinger, Bergen) and The Scream (1893, National Gallery, Oslo) form a part. He stayed in Berlin only until 1895, though he continued to exhibit there regularly. But this short period was arguably the most important of his career.

Ferdinand Hodler

Like Munch, Ferdinand Hodler (1853-1918) came from a geographical environment that was isolated and mountainous. In Switzerland as in Norway, there was a tradition which went back to the eighteenth century of a sublime approach towards landscape painting, with the mountains and lakes providing the perfect subject, but by c.1880 the artistic climate in both countries was dominated by realism. By the end of the 1880s, Hodler, as a result of a religious experience which almost caused him to enter the church, began to transform the realistic approach of his early paintings, developing an increasingly complex symbolism in a series of very large canvases, symmetrical and rhythmic, which can be compared to Munch's cycles on the themes of life and death. In the most famous of them, Night (1891, Kunstmuseum, Berne), the various aspects of sleep - nightmares, dreams, love and rest - are emblematically represented. These paintings are religious, but not in any Christian sense. Rather they are manifestations of beauty, purity and redemption through art - altarpieces of a new personal faith. In Eurhythmy (1895, Kunstmuseum, Berne) a frieze of old men move slowly across the canvas. Their stylized gestures have something in common with the dance movements evolved by teachers such as Emile Jacques Dalcroze, with whom Hodler later became friendly. The painting represents a contemplative search, full of tragic implications, for spiritual equanimity. It is a search for an alternative to the positivist and materialist world which dominated the culture of late nineteenth-century Europe.

After showing Night in Switzerland, Hodler took it with him to Paris, where it was accepted in 1891 at the Societe Nationale by a jury which included Puvis de Chavannes, Dagnan-Bouveret and Roll. Hodler also exhibited at the Salon de la Rose + Croix in 1892. However, it was in Germany at various Secessionist exhibitions that he achieved his greatest success. Night was exhibited in Berlin in 1894, and in 1897 it and Eurhythmy won a gold medal at the Munich Glasplast. From the 1890s onwards Hodler was receiving various commissions for mural painting to decorate town halls, universities and museums, first in Switzerland, and then in Germany. In addition to his fresco murals and large canvases, Hodler also ceveloped a manner of treating landscapes, of which one of the earliest mature examples is Lake Geneva from Chexbres (1895, Kunsthaus, Zurich). These landscapes of the mountains and lakes of Switzerland also express the unity, balance and permanence of the universe. The parallels between them and the landscapes of Paul Cezanne have often been drawn; in 1913 the well-known German art critic Fritz Burger made this comparison the subject of a book entitled Cezanne und Hodler. Both artists monumentalized the forms of rocks, mountains and lakes, ignoring the human presence, but Cezanne focused on the coloured nuances in the scene as a means of suggesting form and space and ultimately reality, while Hodler created a heightened reality through precision of line and the elimination of aerial perspective.

Whereas Munch and Hodler aimed to create a sublime yet modern thematic repertoire, the aims of many of the most interesting German artists in the 1880s and 1890s were more modest in their interpretation of subject matter. The generation of Idealist painters (symbolists, romantics), Hans Von Marees and Arnold Bocklin, were rejected in Germany by many of these modernists who supported the Impressionist movements. The opposition was illustrated in the controversial attack by Meier-Graefe (the principal supporter of the Impressionists in Germany) on Bocklin in 1905, called Der Fall Bocklin (The Case of Bocklin), in which he called Bocklin's paintings irrelevant to reality as well as fanciful and 'wrong' in technique. However, Idealist strands continued, for example in the work of Max Klinger (1857-1920), and particularly in Munich in the work of secessionist Franz von Stuck (1863-1928) and the illustrator Thomas Theodor Heine (1867-1948). Their decorative style and representation of erotic decadence contrast with the more philosophical seriousness of Munch or Hodler.


Many of the most interesting German painters were in search of a more direct naturalism. Amongst them were three artists represented here, Liebermann, Corinth and Slevogt, who became the advanced artistic establishment in Berlin during the 1890s, and ultimately its leading Secessionist painters. Liebermann was a Berlin-based artist; Corinth and Slevogt originally worked in Munich, but in the late 1890s both moved to Berlin, where they found a more favourable critical reception. They evolved a realistic approach to painting through an increasingly rapid painterly handling which foreshadows some of the techniques adopted by the Die Brucke group.

Max Liebermann

Eva (1883, Kunsthalle, Hamburg), the earlier painting by Max Liebermann was painted in a single day, in spite of its strong and direct composition. The broad handling of paint and bright colour has little in common with contemporary French Impressionist paintings despite the open-air effects in the background. The painting possesses a pathos which is much closer to those works by Jules Bastien-Lepage (1848-84) which many English painters took as their model in French art. The Dutch subjects which Liebermann favoured, and the tradition of painterly handling, looked back to two artists much admired by Liebermann and his contemporaries - Frans Hals (1580-1666) and Rembrandt (1606-69). Hals appealed on account of his brilliant technique, Rembrandt for his Innerlichkeit (inwardness). In 1876 and 1877 Liebermann painted a series of copies after Hals, whose influence is seen in his portrait art and in the broad, virtuoso strokes of The Parrot Walk (Papageienallee) of 1902 (Kunsthalle, Bremen), a picture freer in technique than Eva.

Lovis Corinth

The values of Hals and Rembrandt were also understood in terms of their German or Nordic qualities. Holland was to be absorbed as 'Low Germany' into a pan-Germanic cultural empire which was discussed on many levels in Germany at the end of the nineteenth century. Rembrandt became a potent cultural symbol. In his Self-Portrait with Model (1901, Kunstmuseam, Winterthur) Lovis Corinth is identifying himself both with Rembrandt and with Bismarck. At this point the myth of Rembrandt and the myth that had grown around the old Iron Chancellor of Germany had much in common. Many books appeared in Germany from the 1890s onwards with titles such as Rembrandt als Erzieher (1890) and Der Rembrandtdeutsche (1892), both by Julius Langbehn. In Rembrandt, ein kunst-philosophischer Versuch (1916), Georg Simmel, one of the most noted sociologists of his time, wrote of that 'expression of the spiritual' (Ausdruck des Seelichen) which he saw as Rembrandt's achievement. It was this which the German 'Impressionist' artists strove to combine with naturalistic observation, and which the Expressionists were later to achieve through different techniques; the concept of 'the spiritual' (das Geistige), which Kandinsky also made into the central element in his art and theory, was deeply rooted in German art.

In 1890 Corinth and Slevogt were in Munich, then an important art centre, Franz von Lenbach (1836-1904), who had also created Rembrandtesque portraits of Bismarck, was the most respected Munich painter at this time. The more progressive artists, led by Von Stuck, were in contact with Symbolist circles in Paris, and in 1892 formed the Munich Secession - the first secessionist movement in Germany. The artists who showed at this first exhibition included Corinth, Slevogt, Uhde and Trubner - the latter two products of the school of Leibl. Degas and Monet were also among those who were persuaded to send work from Paris. In Berlin, the storm surrounding Munch's exhibition in 1892 led to 11 artists setting up their own exhibiting organization (Gruppe XI), which formed the nucleus of the Berlin Secession, founded in 1898. Its members included Liebermann and the Symbolist artist Hofmann. Many foreigners exhibited at the Berlin Secession, including artists as varied as Blanche, Brangwyn, Cottet, Hodler, La Touche, Luce, Monet, Pissarro, Raffaelli, Segantini, Vallotton, Vuillard, Whistler and Rodin. (See also: Vienna Secession.) The growing prominence of art dealers, such as Gurlitt and Cassirer in Berlin and Arnold in Dresden, led to extensive exposure of the works of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. The paintings of Van Gogh (1853-90), the Pointillist Georges Seurat (1859-91), Paul Cezanne (1839-1906) and Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), for instance, all became well known around the turn of the century. Their works were illustrated in periodicals and books and they achieved a mythic status a decade before they became famous in England or the United States.

Curiously, pointillism (the 'dot' style of Divisionism, pioneered by Seurat and Signac) never became as popularin Germany as it did in Holland or Italy: see, for instance, Italian Divisionism.

The influx of French Post-Impressionist works into Germany after 1900 paved the way for the stylistic experiments of early Expressionist paintings, in which colour, drawing and subject matter became increasingly distorted, expressing a greater psychological intensity than Corinth conveyed in The Childhood of Zeus.

Artist Colonies: Worpswede and Dachau

There remains one further strand of German painting to be considered. Just as in France artists from all over the world were drawn to Brittany, English artists to Cornwall, and Scottish artists to Cockburnspath, so in Germany the desire to escape from the cities found expression in artists' colonies that sprang up all over the country. Two of the most famous and artistically significant were Worpswede in the north and Dachau in the south. These colonies were not as remote geographically as Pont-Aven. Worpswede was a village about 20 miles from Bremen, itself a significant art centre, near Hamburg and the other major urban centres of North Germany. Dachau was close to Munich. Artists from both colonies exhibited at Secessionist and other exhibitions in the cities from which they were so keen to escape. This escape into the country, where Gemeinschaft (community) could exist as an alternative to the Gesellschaft (society) of life in the city, was the basis of many literary and artistic manifestations of the time. (See also: Folk Art.) In 1889 Fritz Mackensen (1866-1953) and Otto Modersohn (1865-1943), two painters in their early twenties, came to Worpswede from the Munich and Dusseldorf Academies in an attempt to escape from what they perceived to be the bourgeois realism of the traditional art institutions of the cities. Soon they were joined by other artists and in the winter of 1894-5 they held their first group exhibition at the Kunsthalle in Bremen, an exhibition which was then moved to the Munich Glaspalast, where their work was seen as the German equivalent of the Glasgow Boys. Birch trees, the heathland, moors and canals were the subjects of their paintings, naturalistic themes which were often combined with Jugendstil influences. This was also true of the Dachau painters, as the work of Ludwig Dill (1848-1940) shows. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke sought out Worpswede, as he was later to 'seek out' Rodin; he wrote poetic evocations of both artistic phenomena. He found in Worpswede the quintessential significance of northern landscape, as perfected by Jacob Van Ruisdael (1628-82). Writing of Modersohn, he spoke of the artist in the following manner:

He is the acknowledgment of the truth of the Rembrandt-German. For him, too, the fowl, the herring and the apple are more colourful than the parrot, the goldfish and orange. This is, however, no restriction but rather a difference. He does not wish to paint the southern aspect, which wears its colour on its sleeve and swaggers with it. Things which are inwardly full of colour, which he himself described in a manner which cannot be bettered, as the secret devotional colour of the north, are his task. We will learn to value this task and not overlook that life which tries to solve this task. It is a still deeply feeling man, who has his own myths, his own Germanic nordic world.

Paula Modersohn-Becker

In 1898 the 23-year-old Paula Becker arrived in Worpswede where she befriended the other young artists, met Rilke in 1900, and married Otto Modersohn in 1901. However she found the work of her mentors too genre-like, and sought a simplicity of form and colour, derived in part from her admiration for Von Marees and Bocklin, but more importantly from the work of Van Gogh and Gauguin which she had seen in Paris. Paula Modersohn-Becker was thus one of the first direct transmitters to Germany of the lessons of the great French Post-Impressionists. Her paintings represent a rejection of naturalistic technique, without abandoning naturalist subject matter.

German Post-Impressionism: Idealism versus Naturalism

The conflict between idealism and naturalism was the central issue facing German Post-Impressionist painters of this period. Their naturalism became progressively more colourful and freer in execution until it resembled something akin to Impressionism, though it had quite different sources. But above all, the Ideal, which since the end of the eighteenth century had been the dominant strain in German art, never really deserted the work of even the most 'Impressionist' artists. (One might argue that idealism had been a factor since the German Renaissance c.1430-1580.) Superficially there seemed to be some sort of international style' in European painting, around 1900. In 1904 a German critic, Albert Dresdner, wrote:

Pissarro in Paris, Liebermann in Berlin, Klimt in Vienna, Claus in Belgium, Breitner in Holland, Maljavine in Russia, all seem at first glance nationally and individually very different artistic personalities - only on closer examination does a quite surprising similarity in spirit, character and purpose show itself in the works of all these artists. They are recognizable as variations of the impressionist concept of art and show themselves so ruled by that concept that national differences are blurred and in some cases almost eliminated. In truth - never was art so 'un-national' as today in this epoch of the national principle.

Fritz Burger did, however, perceive important national differences between French and German art. For him, the French appeared pragmatic but nonetheless firmly based in a classical tradition. The German artist, he felt, was too concerned with subject matter to develop a consistent technique: 'He seeks the essence in the subject itself'.

Munch and Hodler were less caught up in this dilemma, perhaps because neither was German. In Germany, it was only after 1905 that German Expressionism found ways of fusing technique and content, observation and expression. However, these dilemmas had given strength to the best German art of the previous generation. Liebermann and Corinth in particular, the outstanding German painters of this generation, shared with their French contemporaries a concern to graft the lessons of naturalism on to the continuing traditions of their own national art.

Works of German Post-Impressionism can be seen in some of Europe's best art museums.

We gratefully acknowledge the use of material from Norman Rosenthal's scholarly article on Post-Impressionism in Germany, published (1979) by the Royal Academy, London.

• For the chronology of Post-Impressionism in Germany, see: History of Art Timeline.
• For more about late-19th century German painting, see: Homepage.

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