The Early Days – Between Genre and History Painting
With his painting Gänserupferinnen [Women Plucking Geese], completed in 1872, Liebermann captured the attention of the art world far beyond Weimar. His choice of subject matter also brought him scathing criticism, however, and he was even accused of being a "painter of filth". This criticism was specifically aimed at his unembellished portrayals of everyday life. In the hope of gaining greater appreciation in France, Liebermann moved to Paris in late 1873 and spent the following summer painting in Barbizon. Of his contemporaries, Mihály Munkácsy and above all Jean-François Millet made a strong impression upon Liebermann, while Frans Hals, Rembrandt and Velázquez were his main influences among the old masters.
Early Portrayals of Working Life
The theme of physical labour dominated Liebermann's work throughout the 1870s. Rejecting anecdotal detail, pathos and sentimentality, his aim was to portray common workers in a realistic manner, showing the arduousness of his subjects'.
During this phase of his artistic career, Liebermann benefitted greatly from the experience of living and working in different towns, regions and countries. The works on show here were partly inspired by things the artist had observed at first hand in Weimar, Paris, Holland and on a visit to Tyrol. In his attempt to take genre painting in a new direction, Liebermann was also able to follow the example of other artists. While still a student in Weimar, he had encountered a major work by Mihály Munkácsy entitled Charpiezupferinnen [Making Lint] (1871) – a depiction of women making gauze by scraping pieces of linen cloth. Liebermann drew upon Munkácsy's work not only in terms of subject matter; the strong chiaroscuro of the Hungarian's dramatic painting also appears in some of Liebermann's works from this period in the form of strikingly dark backgrounds. From 1874 onwards, the influence of Jean-François Millet – one of the leading Barbizon painters – upon Liebermann's painting becomes increasingly evident. As early as the 1850s, the French artist had begun to establish peasant life and farm workers as subjects of artistic representation.