Max Liebermann – Free Period in the Amsterdam Orphanage (1881 – 1882)

It was a warm and sunny day when Max Liebermann, strolling on the streets of Amsterdam, with not a care in the world, laid eyes upon what would become one of the most consequential scenes he’d ever witness.

This was the 29-year-old German artist’s second workation in the Netherlands – part vacation, indulging in the pleasure of discovering a new, yet kindred culture, but mostly work, since he was there to learn and hone his skills, counting on the inspiration and creative nudge that only a new environment can stir in an artistic soul.

Max Liebermann - Women Plucking Geese (1871)
Max Liebermann – Women Plucking Geese (1871), oil on canvas. Alte Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Back home they called him the “apostle of the ugly” for his grim, realist depictions of workers and the underprivileged, like his early painting Women Plucking Geese. Once in Holland, Liebermann was fascinated to discover the rural parts of the country with their salt of the earth peasants – living and breathing incarnations of Jean-François Millet’s paintings, a personal hero of his.

There was something strangely refreshing about visiting a country not yet industrialized, like a voyage back in time to a simpler era, before the advent of James Watt’s steam engine had contracted people’s perception of time, accelerating their days in a blurry whirlwind of unabated distractions and pursuits.

In the cities of Amsterdam and Haarlem, however, Liebermann was delighted to visit the art museums and learn from the great Dutch masters, sketching and painting countless studies after their works. Most of all, he admired Frans Hals, the 17th-century Dutch Golden Age portraitist, known for his quick brushwork and jovial, lively “would you have a drink with me?” paintings.

Frans Hals – The Lute Player (1632)
Frans Hals – The Lute Player (1632), oil on canvas. Louvre Museum

But on that fateful 1876 summer day, as he was passing by the Amsterdam municipal orphanage, Liebermann was struck by a most serene and joyous scene: pretty Dutch girls dressed in red-and-black uniforms and white bonnets tending to their sewing amidst half-whispers and hushed giggles, their faces aglow with the blushing innocence of youth as well as the contentment and modest self-assurance that only a craft well-done can provide. Here were girls – without a home, without a family – experiencing the pure, unadulterated joy that others search a lifetime for. The golden afternoon light sifting through the trees’ foliage made them appear almost otherworldly.

Max Liebermann - Courtyard of the Orphanage in Amsterdam 1876
Max Liebermann – Courtyard of the Orphanage in Amsterdam (1876), oil on canvas. Arp Museum Bahnhof Rolandseck. Study for “Free Period in the Amsterdam Orphanage.”

Touched by this unexpected sight, Liebermann immediately asked the orphanage trustees for permission to set his studio on their premises and paint the girls. He was met with reluctance and incredulity at first, for what was so special about these poor, ordinary orphans, anyway? But eventually they relented and, during several visits, Liebermann completed five outdoor studies that summer, all from slightly different perspectives, including Courtyard of the Orphanage in Amsterdam.

It would take the artist another six years before he revisited the subject in his masterpiece Free Period in the Amsterdam Orphanage (click to zoom in), drawing inspiration from his previous on-site paintings, nostalgic memories and numerous new figure studies.

Max Liebermann - Free Period in the Amsterdam Orphanage 1881-1882
Max Liebermann – Free Period in the Amsterdam Orphanage (1881-1882), oil on canvas. Städel Museum

Today it is rather difficult to fathom that within such an institutional environment happiness can be found. Do I hear child labor? Do I hear women’s rights? Whoop, whoop! So we wouldn’t be wrong to assume that Liebermann idealized the orphans’ conditions. Look how much gloomier and austere his initial study is, whereas in this painting the foggy bias of his memory reveals to us an almost sentimental scene.

Personally, I was especially struck by the resemblance of the girls’ uniforms to the costumes worn by oppressed women in Hulu’s TV series The Handmaid’s Tale. But spend more time with the painting and your resistance may start to diffuse, like the chestnut’s shadows perforated by warm, shimmering, sunlit patches in the courtyard of the orphanage.

There’s something very heartwarming about these young girls enjoying their recess – some are deeply preoccupied by their handiwork, others are chatting, laughing or playing – oblivious to their precarious condition and poor start in life. They are just children, Liebermann is trying to tell us. If not for their uniforms, you wouldn’t be able to tell them apart from any other girls their own age.

Free Period in the Amsterdam Orphanage ended up being a turning point in Liebermann’s career, earning him praise at the Paris Salon and propelling his stardom across Europe. Now he was ready to give up his “apostle of ugly” title and explore the light and flickering beauty of life, in the process becoming one of the leaders of German Impressionism.

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Dear and most patient readers, it’s been a while since my last post. I am truly sorry for this unplanned and unannounced hiatus but, rest assured, I have been working on some new content, which I hope to share with you very, very soon. Stay tuned!

18 thoughts on “Max Liebermann – Free Period in the Amsterdam Orphanage (1881 – 1882)

  1. To me it seems his skilled increased considerably (both technically and aesthetically) during the ~6 years from “Courtyard” to “Free Period”. With the latter we see many more subjects’s faces and more detail. The subjects are are closer to the viewer and there is much more action. Regarding improved skill, one more thing I noticed (and it bothered me 🙂 ) was the black bracket holding the light In “Courtyard” (top center right). To me the jet black sticks out like a sore thumb, almost as if it had been spray painted with a can of high gloss Rust-Oleum. In “Free Period” it is a more realistic flat dim color that does not draw my eye away.

    Wow, that seems like a lot of writing for one tiny little thing.

    Welcome back!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Aha, I know I can always count on your meticulous observations, David. Now that you mentioned the bracket holding the light, you’re right, it does look awful, like some graffiti. But I’m not sure it’s fair to draw parallels between the two paintings beyond the overall feeling/mood they convey. It’s akin to comparing a quick sketch to a highly elaborate drawing.

      “Courtyard” served merely as a study for the final painting, “Free Period”. When Liebermann did the latter, he used 14 new figure studies just for the girl sewing seated on the ground.

      I guess the moral of the story is that this sort of composition requires a lot of planning and work. Reality by itself would be underwhelming.

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      1. Ah, that explains the big difference between the two. I know that you said he had done a number of studies over several visits, and I know what studies are, but I guess that just “went in one ear and out the other”.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. What a great set of paintings to showcase on your comeback Gabriela.
    The portion about travelling back in time, by travelling away from technology is something that I see in my part of the world, quiet often. I guess that also explains why photographers seek such places and views ( maybe their own version of capturing nostalgia )

    I am taken in by the way sunlight has been captured on the courtyard floor. Beautiful.

    Thank you for being back!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Rahul. It’s good to be back. I have such wonderful readers!

      Yes, I think we’re bound to look for simplicity whenever we feel overwhelmed. Rejecting technology is the most straightforward way to achieve that peace of mind, though it’s become increasingly difficult these days to separate from it. (all my “detox” attempts end poorly)

      The warm sunlight piercing through the foliage is my favorite part too. It ended up being Liebermann’s signature style. He was easily recognized for his “sunspots.”

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  3. Yay! More Artschaft. I love the kind of narrative writing you’ve incorporated, which I think is a new style for you. I can sense more of your voice in the way you tell the story of this painting. You are making it your own. Bravo

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Robert. I’m glad you enjoyed the narrative style. Unfortunately not all paintings have a distinctive background story, but it’s still a fun endeavor trying to unearth them.

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  4. What a nickname to be given: “apostle of the ugly”! Though vastly different in style, his “Women Plucking Geese” reminds me of van Gogh’s work in the late nineteenth century, such as his famous “Potato Eaters.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Haha, yes! I think “apostle of the ugly” is quite flattering, since truth is often ugly. I see what you mean about Van Gogh. He and Liebermann were big fans of Jean-François Millet, so maybe the latter’s earthy realism struck a chord in both of them.

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