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Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Wilhelm Leibl

Wilhelm Leibl Self-Portrait, 1871
Art has the power to change men's lives. (Women's too--but it's an old proverb.) It's a tall order. Behind all art there are artists, so to humanize it a bit, we might say, "artists have the power to change men's lives." Try telling that to a frazzled art teacher about mid-afternoon as she rides herd over twenty or thirty eighth graders. You might get anything from a sad sigh complemented by rolling eyes to a sinister snarl through gritted teeth.

The Desperate Man (self-portrait), 1843-45.
Gustave Courbet
In 1869, Gustave Courbet, the leading French Realist at the time, and something of a one-man traveling art extravaganza, took his wares to the Munich International Exhibition. Though you might never know it from seeing one of his self-portraits (left), Courbet preached a strict adherence to the simple, the humble, and the peasant over the academic, enlightened, and grandiose. His message struck a resounding chord with the German people and particularly one impressionable young painter who saw and admired his work. Courbet met him, and invited him back to Paris where they worked together, not so much as mentor-protege but as colleagues, though at the time Courbet was old enough to be his father. That young man was Wilhelm Leibl.

Portrait of the Young Rembrandt van Rijn,
Wilhelm Leibl. The two artists were not
contemporaries (by some 200 years). The
work typical of Leibl's early portraits and
is nearly identical to an 1864 portrait of
Rudolf Hirth du Frenes, a fellow student
at the Munich Art Academy.
Today, Wilhelm Leibl is considered the greatest German artist of the nineteenth century. Courbet is somewhat less well thought of among Frenchmen. Leibl was born in 1844 in Cologne, Germany. His father was the director of music at the Cologne Cathedral. He studied first under a local painter then moved up to the Munich Academy. He was very much an academic painter, heavily influenced by Dutch painting from which he derived his tight, unemotional style. By the time he met Courbet, he'd studied under a couple other local painters and had his first major exhibition in Munich, so he was no youthful upstart. It was not so much Leibl's style of painting Courbet changed but his life itself. Courbet introduced him to a different mindset as to what constituted art. He insisted that art was not a form of propaganda for the aristocracy, nor wall decorations for the bourgeoisie. It was a vehicle for change, a means of exalting the humble, painting it as noble, depicting the common people in their righteousness as the only morally valid subject for the conscientious artist.

Der Spargroschen, 1879, Wilhelm Leibl 
It was a lesson well-learned. After nine months, Leibl went back to Munich where he struggled for three years before retreating deep into obscurity among the Bavarian Bavarian Alps to the little village of Berbling. There he not only painted the German peasantry, he joined them in their simple, ragged, yet contented existence, painting modest, subtle, little morality lessons such as Der Spargroschen (right, 1879). The title translate as "Spare Change," or perhaps "The Nest-egg," and depicts an elderly German couple, meagerly the few coins of their life's savings. His more famous work, Three Women in Church (below), is what Courbet might have aspired to had he not been blinded by his own ambition. Three ladies are seen, on their knees, in church. One, middle-aged, her profile starkly etched against a white wall, looks off steadfastly in prayer. A second, much older, humbly bows her head, peering with some difficulty at her scripture. A third, perhaps her granddaughter, whose flawless complexion and white, delicately flowered shawl, contrast with a dark background, holds a prayer book in her huge hands against the white apron of her lap. Sitting stiffly upright, she has no trouble reading the words. Leibl does not idolize. He does not preach. He portrays, from life, that which is life, and that which makes even the most toiled life a spiritual triumph.
Three Women in Church, 1883, Wilhelm Leibl

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