Lovis Corinth (1858–1925) has proved to be one of the most influential German painters of the early twentieth century. Prolific across several contrasting genres, he is now best known for figurative and landscape works painted during his late career. One major factor which forced him to change to looser and more gestural style was his stroke in December 1911. In this series of articles, I am going to try to get a broader and more balanced view of his work, and how it changed during his career.
This Self Portrait of 1887 shows Corinth at the age of twenty-nine.
He was born Franz Heinrich Louis Corinth, in the village of Tapiau, in what was then the northern part of East Prussia – now the town of Gvardeysk near Kaliningrad, Russia. He was schooled in the city of Königsberg (now Kaliningrad), and soon resolved to be an artist. He started to attend the Academy of Fine Arts in Königsberg in 1876, where he decided that he wanted to be a history painter. Corinth started to concentrate on painting the figure.
On the advice of his teachers in Königsberg, Corinth moved to Munich in the spring of 1880, where he initially studied with Franz von Defregger. At that time, Munich almost rivalled Paris as a progressive centre for the arts, and had been the preference of William Merritt Chase, who had left Munich only two years previously. Corinth learned both traditional and modern techniques of oil painting in the studio of Ludwig von Löfftz, where he concentrated on painting from life.
Even his earliest figures, such as his Crucified Thief from 1883, were powerful, and showed influence from the Dutch Masters.
Like William Merritt Chase, Corinth was particularly fond of the work of Van Dyck and Frans Hals, as shown in his portrait of Laughing Girl (1883).
Black Othello (1884) was probably his earliest success, and was exhibited to acclaim in Königsberg. That same year another painting won a bronze medal in London, and was exhibited at the Salon in Paris in 1885.
Corinth completed his training in Munich in 1884, and moved to Antwerp for a few months, before he settled in Paris in the autumn of that year. There he enrolled in the Académie Julian, where he studied under Bouguereau and Robert-Fleury, and concentrated on female nudes and building a repertoire of mythological scenes. He was influenced by the 1885 retrospective exhibition of the works of Jules Bastien-Lepage, who had died suddenly in 1884, and this moved his style towards greater naturalism.
Examples of his paintings from life from his time in Paris include his study of a Nude Girl (1886) above, and below of a Sitting Female Nude from the same year.
In 1886 he visited Germany, and painted some landscapes and portraits en plein air on the Baltic coast near Kiel. When he returned to Paris that autumn, he was becoming increasingly frustrated by his inability to achieve success at the Salon. He only had two paintings accepted there, in 1885 and 1887, and neither had achieved critical success or a medal. He left Paris, and joined the Nasser Lappen (‘Wet Rags’) group in Berlin for a while, trying to progress history painting. It was then that he painted his first self-portrait, shown above.
In 1888, he returned to Königsberg, adopted the name of Lovis Corinth, and started to find his form at last. Woman Reading shows his early style maturing well, with its subtle use of light.
His father, who had been a successful tanner, fell ill, prompting Corinth’s sensitive painting of his final illness, in Father, Franz Heinrich Corinth, in Hospital (1888). When his father died early the following year, Corinth became financially independent, and set up a proper studio in Königsberg at last.
Corinth painted portraits, including this of Franz Lilienthal (1889), another East Prussian student at the Académie Julian. That same year he was inspired by an exhibition of the paintings of von Lenbach, Böcklin, and von Uhde, as a result of which he finally obtained an honourable mention at the Salon in 1890.
That same year, he painted one of his most accomplished early portraits, Innocentia (1890), and his first attempt at a history painting of a popular narrative.
Corinth painted two versions of Susanna Bathing (Susanna and the Elders) in 1890: that above, now in the Museum Folkwang, and that below, believed to be in a private collection.
The story of Susanna (or Shoshana) and the Elders is told in the Old Testament book of Daniel, chapter 13, and centres on voyeurism, blackmail, and justice. Susanna was a beautiful married woman who was bathing in her garden one afternoon, having dismissed her servants. Two lustful elders spied on her, and as she returned to her house they stopped her, and threatened that, unless she agreed to have sex with them, they would claim that she had met her lover in the garden. Being virtuous, Susanna refused their blackmail, and was promptly arrested, charged with promiscuity, and awaited her execution.
The young prophet Daniel interrupted the process, demanding that the elders should be properly questioned before such a severe penalty was applied. When questioned individually, the two elders gave different accounts, most notably in the type of tree under which Susanna allegedly met her lover. The accusations were thus revealed to be false, Susanna was acquitted of the charge, and the two elders were executed instead.
From the early Renaissance, this has been a popular story in painting, almost universally depicted as a nude bather being spied on by two nasty old men. As narrative, this is weak (the crux being the conflicting evidence of the elders, which is much harder to paint), and is usually only an excuse to paint a female nude, with some gratuitous anti-semitism. However, it was painted by most of the Masters of narrative, including Artemisia Gentileschi.
Corinth shows what had become quite a traditional version, in which Susanna is seen in the flesh but not under any tree in the garden: she is instead being spied on from behind a curtain, with only one of the two elders clearly visible.
Of his two versions, that in the Museum Folkwang appears the less finished, but both emphasise Susanna’s nakedness with her clothes, and add refinements by way of her discarded jewellery and a flower from her hair. Her figure reflects the effort that Corinth had put into life studies, and makes the simple composition a great success.
Lemoine S et al. (2008) Lovis Corinth, Musée d’Orsay & RMN. ISBN 978 2 711 85400 4. (In French.)
Czymmek G et al. (2010) German Impressionist Landscape Painting, Liebermann-Corinth-Slevogt, Arnoldsche. ISBN 978 3 89790 321 0.