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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!