In Focus

A Liebermann for Dallas

This essay explores the exhibition history and art historical context of Max Liebermann's Swimmers_._

Max Liebermann began work on Swimmers, an ambitious canvas, in Zandvoort in the summer of 1875, but left it “incomplete” and allowed about two years to go by as he worked on different projects before taking it up again. For this study of modern life, Liebermann tackled a subject that is decidedly urban — schoolboys or, more likely, street urchins before, during, and after their swim in the sea on a warm summer day. The ten boys seem to have used a fisherman’s floating pier hut, complete with its nets and tackle (all carefully painted, along with the graffiti on the wall), as a combination diving board and changing room. They are in various states of undress—three of them completely nude, five half-clothed, and two all but completely dressed—and their poses are equally varied, ranging from seated to standing to kneeling, thus presenting a host of pictorial challenges to a painter not yet quite thirty years old. In his definitive catalogue raisonné, Matthias Eberle dates the painting’s completion to the spring or summer of 1877, in time for its first showing at the annual exhibition, in Amsterdam, of works by foreign artists, which was held from September 17 through October 15 of 1877. [1] In many ways, it was his debut as a painter of modern life, and because Liebermann's paintings had failed at the Paris Salons during those years, either because they had been rejected or ignored (perhaps due to his German origins), he elected to exhibit it in the Netherlands, where a tradition of urban realism was already more than two hundred and fifty years old in 1877. Unfortunately, no contemporary review mentioning it at the 1877 exhibition has been discovered, and the reception of the painting must have disappointed its exacting maker. It was apparently not exhibited again until 1925 in Berlin. Swimmers was part of a pattern of disappointment that ran through Liebermann’s career in France and eventually resulted in his return to Germany in 1878 — not to his native Berlin, but to Munich, where he remained until 1882.

We can only speculate about the reason for Liebermann’s choice of this particular subject. He seems not to have been in Paris for the Salon of 1869, when Frédéric Bazille exhibited his full-scale male bather composition, the first important modern work with this subject, and nothing ties him with Bazille enough for him to have seen that painting or its more successful — and more distinctly homoerotic — single-figure version of 1868 (Zurich, Fondation Rau pour le Tiers-Monde) before he started his own work in 1872. Clearly, and in much the same way as Edgar Degas, in Young Spartans (1860–80, London, National Gallery), was struggling with the problem at the same time, Liebermann wanted to paint the nude without resorting to studio models and a contrived classical composition. When, on a summer trip to Holland, Liebermann witnessed boys swimming, he realized the potential of the scene as a subject for a multifigure modern composition with natural, that is, uncontrived, nudity. This was an image that was literally about vitality and youth — about the future — rather than a description of rural workers engaged in millennial tasks. Rather than painting a female nude, as had Edouard Manet, Gustave Courbet, and other of Liebermann’s French heroes, he was able to allow contemporary viewers access to a scene of contemporary nudity without prurience or the dubious moral consequences of modern female nudes, which were associated with prostitution or illicit, nonfamilial sexuality. In this, Liebermann was participating in the budding naturalist movement in art and literature, in which the realist aesthetic of the mid-19th century exemplified by Courbet, Jean-Francois Millet, and the Barbizon painters was transformed into an urban art that dealt with the class issues and with urban poverty. This was given particular impetus in France by the literature — and art criticism — of Émile Zola and by the large-scale Salon paintings of Manet and his followers. We suspect that Liebermann made some of his wonderful pencil drawings of the setting and the principal figures “on the spot,” which he visited often enough to observe closely. [2] The detailed representations of certain of the boys also suggest that, when working in his Paris studio on the large canvas itself, he hired lower-class boys as models. The sheer complexity of observation makes this painting very different from plein air bathing pictures with casually observed nudity such as those painted by Auguste Renoir and Claude Monet at La Grenouillère in the summer of 1869. In creating this large, exhibition picture, the young German painter was working on what was to become his first naturalist masterpiece.

In all likelihood, Liebermann’s precedents and touchstones were French. Swimmers was, after all, painted entirely in his studio in Paris in what we now think to have been two annual campaigns, in 1875 and 1876–77. When Liebermann first came to Paris in 1872 or 1873, and before the series of independent exhibitions by the future impressionists began in the spring of 1874, the number of naturalist paintings at the Salon was quite low, and naturalism was a decidedly rural affair. In all likelihood, Liebermann struggled with the composition largely because of its cosmopolitan nature. Since he could not revisit the Dutch site of the work while laboring on the large canvas in Paris, he was unable to refresh his visual stimulation with a re-immersion in life. All he could do was look at other pictures or hired models and study and restudy the drawings he had made for it en plein air. As a young painter working on his first modern subject picture, this might not have been sufficient.

It is fascinating to consider whether Liebermann visited the second impressionist exhibition of 1876, at which the young Gustave Caillebotte under Degas’s leadership made his avant-garde exhibition debut as an urban realist with highly composed, large-scale figure pictures. Two of these, representing half-clothed urban workers planing the newly laid parquet floors of Parisian apartments under construction (1876, Paris, Musée d’Orsay, and private collection), may have reactivated Liebermann, who seems to have gone back to work on Swimmers in that year, completing it in early to mid-1877, after the third impressionist exhibition, at which Caillebotte made an even bigger splash with his large-scale pictures of urban street life in Paris. In addition, the debut of urban naturalists such as Jules Bastien-Lepage and Jean-François Raffaëlli at the Salon gave the young German the impetus to complete his first exhibition picture in the new mode. Although his painting would look well if juxtaposed with Caillebotte’s 1876 paintings of urban workers, its comparative darkness and classical, frieze-like composition would already have appeared old fashioned by 1877, when he decided to send it to Amsterdam for its debut in the annual exhibition of foreign artists.

No one bought Swimmers from the Amsterdam exhibition and, perhaps because of this, it has had a longer history of neglect than any of the other large-scale exhibition pictures — self-conscious masterpieces — painted by Liebermann in the 1870s and early 1880s. The acceptance of his rural naturalism was by far greater, and it seems that, with the possible exception of a brief period of time in a private collection, the painting remained in the artist’s collection throughout his life. Indeed, the painting of the seascape and parts of the body of the seated boy at right seems to have been done as late as the 1920s, when Liebermann took up the composition for a third and last time before its second exhibition in Berlin in 1925. [3] The painting remained in his studio at the time of his death, and its association with his “failure” plagued it in the Liebermann literature until its acquisition by the Dallas Museum of Art in 1988. Despite the artist’s own ambivalence about his creation, the painting is a brilliant record of Liebermann’s rigorous cosmopolitan ambitions as a painter in the 1870s. In making it, he wrestled not only with the art and imagery of the mid-century realists Millet and Courbet, but also took on the bracing urban modernity of Manet, Renoir, Degas, and Caillebotte. Indeed, had he been more courageous about his exhibition strategies, he might well have put his oar in with the impressionists rather than attempt a futile siege of the Salon and other bastions of historicist academic art. (There was another Jewish artist of German origin in the first impressionist exhibition in 1874, so it was not out of the question.) [4] His own career might well have blossomed even earlier had he not shied away from the exhibition strategies of precisely the kind of urban modernist against whom he competed in making the painting.

[1] Matthias Eberle. Max Liebermann, 1847–1935: Werkverzeichnis der Gemälde und Ölstudien, volume 1 (Munich: Hirmer, 1995–96), 104.

[2] One such drawing of five figures was cited in ibid., p. 104. In correspondence with the author, Eberle identified two additional preparatory sketches not located before the publication of his catalogue raisonné. One is a general compositional study (Ketterer, Hamburg, March 18, 2005, lot 1154). The other is a drawing after one of Michelangelo’s slaves that Liebermann must have made during one of his early visits to Paris. This drawing is folio 4 in Liebermann’s first sketchbook, on permanent loan to the Kupferstichkabinett of the Staatlichen Museen, Berlin. See Dallas Museum of Art curatorial file for Swimmers.

[3] Eberle suggests that Liebermann’s frustration with the composition was so strong that he cut it into parts (in a manner familiar to students of Manet’s failed Salon paintings of the 1860s) and that it was reassembled and repainted in the early 1920s. Examination of the painting today contradicts such a hypothesis; see Eberle 1995–96, vol. 1, p. 102.

[4] Édouard Brandon, a friend of Camille Pissarro’s, even sent a realist painting of a synagogue interior to the impressionist exhibition in 1874.

Excerpt from

Richard R. Brettell, "A Liebermann for Dallas: Max Liebermann's Swimmers," in Impressionism and Post-Impressionism at the Dallas Museum of Art, ed. Heather MacDonald (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013), 37-47.

Related Multimedia

In celebration of the publication for the Richard R. Brettell Lecture series, Impressionism and Post-Impressionism at the Dallas Museum of Art, Richard R. Brettell and Dorothy Kosinski discuss two works aquired during their tenure at the DMA. Richard R. Brettell, The Margaret McDermott Chair of Art and Aesthetics at the University of Texas at Dallas and former Director of the Dallas Museum of Art, "A Liebermann for Dallas: Max Liebermannâ019s Swimmers"; Dr. Dorothy Kosinski, Director of The Phillips Collection and formerly The Barbara Thomas Lemmon Curator of European Art and Senior Curator of Painting and Sculpture at the Dallas Museum of Art, "Symbolist Profusion: Léon Frédéricâ019s Nature or Abundance". Dr. Brettell and Dr. Kosinski are later joined on stage by Dr. Maxwell L. Anderson, the Eugene McDermott Director, and Olivier Meslay, the Barbara Thomas Lemmon Curator of European Art, for a conversation about the process of building the DMAâ019s collection of European art from the 1980s to the present and prospects for the future growth of the collection.