Holländerin, stehend in den Dünen nach links signed 'M Liebermann' (lower left) pastel on paper 29 7/8 x 23 1/2in. (76 x 59.5cm) drawn circa 1887
Dr. Margreet Nouwen has kindly confirmed the authenticity of this work.
Max Liebermann was inspired by Jean-François Millet's championing of the beauty, simplicity and honesty of peasant life, in communion with the changing of the seasons and subject to the rhythms of nature. Much like Van Gogh, who discovered in Millet's work the social justice he had never found in the Church, Liebermann was moved by the democratic honesty of Millet's peasants in contrast with bourgeois duplicity. Liebermann's objective depictions of the laboring poor did not earn him much support in his native Germany. The lack of heroism and 'nostalgic romance' in his paintings did not coincide with the demands of a newly unified Germany seeking to use art as a means of creating a common history and iconography.
Liebermann frequently spent the summer months on extended painting expeditions gathering material which he would work up into finished paintings over the winter in his studio. In the summer of 1887 he traveled to Katwijk in Holland, a town on the North Sea at one of the many mouths of the Rhine. He had always had a special affinity for Holland:
'Holland has rightfully been called the land of painting par excellence, and it is no accident that Rembrandt was Dutch. The fog that rises above the water and floods everything with a transparent haze gives the country a specifically picturesque quality. The watery atmosphere...gives the air a soft, silvery, grey tone...its beauty lies in its intimacy. And like the country so are the people: never loud, no affect or banality'. (quoted in M. Nouwen, 'Malheimat Holland', in Uwe M. Schneede et al., Max Liebermann: Der Realist und die Phantasie, exh. cat., Hamburg, Kunsthalle, and elsewhere, 1997, p. 19).
Over that summer Liebermann began working on what would become one of the pivotal works of this first half of his career, Die Netzflickerinnen, or The Net Menders (Hamburg, Kunsthalle), completed in 1889. This painting is both typical of his earlier genre scenes and a departure from it. While the composition shows a group of peasants at work and so in keeping with much of his paintings from the 1870s and early 1880s, here there is a single central figure as a focal point, who, while still a part of the industrious group tableau, also stands as an individual. She shows emotion on her face and by her posture - she does not seem happy, nor is her gaze directed at the net she drags behind her - she is looking off into the distance outside the picture plane. It is a distinct moment of maturity and ambition for Liebermann as an artist.
During the same summer as he was working on his preparatory sketches for Die Netzflickerinnen, Liebermann produced a series of evocative paintings and sketches of women or young girls alone on the dunes of Katwijk. While many of these were initially studies for the Netzflickerinnen group Liebermann considered them works of art in their own right and worthy of use as finished paintings in oil (M. Eberle, Max Liebermann, 1847-1935 : Werkverzeichnis der Gemälde und Ölstudien, vol. I, Munich, 1996, pp. 312-313). In this series Liebermann completely leaves behind the comfort of the group scene where the viewer's eye never focuses too long on one element, and dares to concentrate his entire attention on a single figure.
Beyond succeeding in creating a sense of empathy between subject and viewer, in the present pastel Liebermann also adds an element of drama. In an early exhibition catalog a pastel of the same series was given the title In banger Erwartung [In Fearful Anticipation]. The implication is that the woman is waiting for her husband or brother to come home, safe from the gathering storm. The present pastel demonstrates beautifully the atmosphere of Holland that Liebermann so loved. The soft, silvery haze that surrounds the woman as she stares off in the distance is made nearly tangible by the pastel medium, which, though less permanent and finished than oil paint, only serves to enhance the fleeting atmosphere of the moment captured here, a rare intimate instant between artist and subject and location.
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