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Leibl, born the son of a church organist in Cologne on 23 October 1844, first studied there under Hermann Becker (1817-1885). His instructors at the Munich Academy, which he entered in 1864, were Hermann Anschütz, Arthur Ramberg and Karl von Piloty. In the Munich Academy, as Quick (in Quick, Ruhmer, and West, 1978) explained, the student spent at least his first year drawing after Antique casts and the model. He graduated to Painting Technique class, which included portrait studies, and finally, in Composition class or master class (Meisterklasse), he worked under a chosen professor. Leibl undoubtedly noticed five works by Frans Hals on display and he discovered the art of Gustave Courbet at the International Art Exhibition in Munich in 1869 where he won a gold medal for his portrait of Frau Gedon; the French realist advised him (with the help of an interpreter) to study in Paris (see Courbet und Deutschland, 1978).
Leibl was in Paris between November 1869 and June or July of 1870. He executed nine paintings during that time, including La Coquette (Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne), whose accessories — the pitcher, plate, and Persian rug — recall those of Alfred Stevens; the Old Parisienne, which remained unfinished; and the Portrait of Madame de Laux (lost). In addition, Wolf (1924, p. 50) illustrated the portrait of the painter Louis Eysen (1843-1899), a powerful and painterly image that might be regarded as an oil sketch. Leibl met Manet and Alfred Stevens and he visited Courbet’s studio in May of 1870. Before Leibl returned to Germany he could have seen Manet’s Le balcon (Musée d’Orsay) and his Déjeuner à l’atelier (Neue Pinakothek, Munich) at the Salon of 1869. In the following year’s Salon Manet’s portrait of Eva Gonzales (National Gallery, London) was on display. In addition, Leibl may have been on hand at some of the stimulating discussions at the Café Guerbois, though according to Röhrl, he had no real knowledge of the French language. Wolf (1924, p. 44) mentioned only four weekly French lessons, which would not have been substantial for conversation.
The Franco-Prussian War cut Leibl’s stay short; the apolitical painter had no bitterness against the French since his loyalty was to the realm of art. He returned to Munich in the summer of 1870 and soon inspired an influential school, which flourished for three years, referred to as the Leiblkreis. His works caused a great sensation. Leibl had a few American students, Jean Paul Selinger (1850-1909) in particular. The American circle of Frank Duveneck (especially J. Frank Currier) was attracted to Leibl’s painted studies, in the sketchy tradition of Frans Hals, whom Leibl vehemently praised. Leibl was part of a German rebel-artist group called the Dochte (wicks or lamps), which included Hans von Marées, Franz von Lenbach, and Wilhelm Busch. According to Neuhaus (1987, p. 12), Wilhelm von Kaulbach, director of the Munich Academy since 1847, called Leibl the Painter-King and “leader of the new realist movement in Germany.”
After the Franco-Prussian War, French realism (i.e. Courbet) was denigrated in Germany, thus Leibl’s style was suspect. Somehow he renounced his own school, fell into long periods of inactivity, then began painting again but led a stark existence in remote villages where he enjoyed hunting and sailing. “Gradually,” as Gronau (1900, p. 166) explained, “the artist’s broad manner, assumed under the influence of the French realists, was changed into a clear and careful surface execution, which developed by degrees into the most minute finish.” The new meticulous, highly linear, tight style reminded Linda Nochlin (1971, p. 90) of Hans Holbein. One might also compare the more recent German schools such as the Nazarenes (Overbeck, Pforr, et al). Leibl’s Three Women in a Church, in Hamburg’s Kunsthalle, took four years to complete (1878-82). The figures are simple pious peasant women, the preferred models of Leibl. In a letter to his brother Theo, Vincent van Gogh praised the painting, which was immediately seen as typically German. Critics noted in Leibl’s Village Politicians, 1876-77 (Oskar Reinhart Foundation, Winterthur), a feeling for the ugly side of life, but also a “surprising individuality” in the characters portrayed (Weisberg, 1992, pp. 192-193). In Zeitschrift für bildende Kunst, 1878, the painting was compared to Courbet’s lost Stone Breakers. Leibl returned to Paris that year with Village Politicians, which was praised; William Stewart purchased it for 15,000 francs and shipped it back to Philadelphia (the painting was sold to a German private collector and returned to Germany twenty years later). Duranty (Gazette des Beaux-Arts, 1879) foresaw a bright future for the painter, while Charles Tardieu, in L'Art, 1879, stressed how Leibl’s peasants were “true” to their environment.
Leibl’s influence has been the focus of studies by Ruhmer (1980 and 1984). His influence on Duveneck was thorough. One need only compare Duveneck’s The Old Professor (1971; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) to Leibl’s The Druggist Clemens von Sicherer of the previous year. Currier, associated with the Leiblkreis, met both Duveneck and Walter Shirlaw in 1870, about the same time Leibl had returned from Paris. William Merritt Chase reached Munich in the fall of 1872, shortly before Leibl left the city. Pisano (1983, p. 29) points out that Chase joined forty other American students at the Munich Academy. Chase was influenced by the energetic alla prima technique of Leibl’s circle, and later he would purchase Leibl’s La Coquette, called the “German modern Olympia” by Meier-Graefe; it directly influenced his own Portrait of a Woman, of 1878 (Wadsworth Athenaeum, Hartford).
Novotny (1960, p. 165) detected a parallel between Leibl’s use of light and that of the impressionists, as well as a forecast of Cézanne’s modulation of forms, as opposed to conventional modeling. As far as German impressionism is concerned, Leibl is considered to be a forerunner (Malerei des Impressionismus, 1992). Wilhelm Trübner (1851-1917), who was part of the Leiblkreis, became a full-fledged impressionist. According to Ruhmer, the Leiblkreis broke up in 1876, as Leibl was turning toward an old master technique. Trübner explored the techniques of the French impressionists and another member of the group, Carl Schuch (1946-1903) went to Venice to become a “German Cézanne.” German impressionism – a rather dark and muddy modification of the French aesthetic – flowered under Max Liebermann and Lovis Corinth.
Gronau discerned a third period in Leibl’s art, when he returned to a larger scale and bolder brushwork, and painted more landscapes. By 1886, when Leibl sent The Poachers to the Paris Salon, his somewhat stiff, linear art was coldly received. French artists, after all, were moving beyond impressionism toward modernism. Leibl’s imagery of earnest Bavarian hunters seemed out of place, just as Hudson River School landscapes were regarded as quaint and too detailed by the progressive American painters at the turn of the century. In 1898, Leibl made a trip to Holland where he declared there would never be a painter greater than Frans Hals. Two years later on 4 December 1900 he died in Würzburg, where he was buried.
Duranty, Edmond, “Munich et l’exposition allemande,” Gazette des Beaux-Arts 20 (November 1879): 454-461; Gronau, Georg, “Wilhelm Leibl,” International Studio 9 (January 1900): 163-172; Scheffler Karl, Deutsche Maler und Zeichner im neunzehnten Jahrhundert. Leipzig: Insel-Verlag, 1919, pp. 154-163; Wolf, George Jacob, Leibl und sein Kreis. Hannover: Kunstverein Hannover, E. V., 1924; White, Nelson, The Art and Life of J. Frank Currier. Cambridge, MA: 1936, pp. 16-17, 45; Neuhaus, Robert, Bildnismalerei des Leibel-Kreises. Marburg: Verlag des Kunstgeschichtlichen Seminars, 1953; Novotny, Fritz, Painting and Sculpture in Europe 1780-1880. The Pelican History of Art Series. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1960, pp. 163-167; Nochlin, Linda, Realism and Tradition in Art 1848-1900. Sources and Documents in the History of Art Series. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1966, pp. 158-162; Finke, Ulrich, German Painting from Romanticism to Expressionism. London: Thames and Hudson, 1974, pp. 144-155; Courbet und Deutschland. Exh. cat. Hamburg: Kunsthalle, 1978; Quick, Michael, Eberhard Ruhmer, and Richard V. West, Munich & American Realism in the 19th Century. Sacramento, CA: Crocker Art Gallery, 1978; Ruhmer, Eberhard, “Wilhelm Leibl et ses amis pour et contre l’impressionnisme,” Gazette des Beaux-Arts 95 (May 1980): 187-196; Idem, Der Leibl-Kreis und die reine Malerei. Rosenheim: Rosenheimer Verlagshaus, 1984; Neuhaus, Robert, Unsuspected Genius: The Art of Frank Duveneck. San Francisco: Bedford Press, 1987, pp. 10, 12-14 [the author mistakenly assigns 1867-69 as Leibl’s years in Paris]; Malerei des Impressionismus: 1860-1920. Ed. Ingo F. Walther. Cologne: Taschen Verlag, 1992; Weisberg, Gabriel P., Beyond Impressionism: The Naturalist Impulse. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1992, pp. 191-194; Röhrl, Boris, “Wilhelm Leibl et Gustave Courbet: Réflexions de Leibl sur les rapports avec la peinture moderne française,” Gazette des Beaux-Arts 127 (February 1996): 95-106.
Submitted by Michael Preston Worley, Ph.D.