Lesser Ury (1861–1931) is known as a “German-Jewish Impressionist” artist, which I find odd, if not faintly offensive. As you’ll see in the paintings which follow in this and the next article about him and his work, there’s nothing which might make it necessary to mention his faith. Furthermore, I think that his style is decidely Post-Impressionist – distinctively so too.
He was born in what was then Birnbaum in Prussia, and is now Międzychód near Poznań in Poland. When his father died in 1872, his family moved to Berlin. When he was eighteen, he gained a place at the Academy of Art in Düsseldorf, then travelled around Europe before returning to Berlin in 1887.
During his travels in Belgium in 1884, he painted this view of the inside of a Flemish Tavern, as the barmaid drew beer for what seem to be two barefoot young girls. Although painted very loosely, I’d hardly see this as being Impressionist, but that roughness in facture surely places it alongside the work of Pierre Bonnard, for example.
Quite early in his career, Ury discovered the type of motif which was later to bring him fame. In 1888, he painted this work showing Unter den Linden After the Rain. This avenue, lined with lime or linden trees, is probably the most famous street in the heart of Berlin. Ury shows that brown half-light so common in wet autumn weather, with a solid rank of horse-drawn cabs running down the left, to a glimpse of the Brandenburger Tor just above the vanishing point.
Although an atmospheric work, it doesn’t quite capture the scene, and it took Ury some years before his street scenes became visually arresting.
In Leipziger Straße, painted the following year, he tried a similar scene from a nearby street in Berlin, this time at night. The columnar reflections of lights are very effective, but once again his style and formula didn’t quite hit the right spot.
In the same year, Night Lighting tried a different approach. The finely fractured image has been simplified and eased into more consistent areas of colour. He has dropped much of the detail, bringing strength to the image. But it still isn’t quite right.
The Red Carpet, which he painted in 1889, shows a woman sewing what appears to be a long evening gown, by the light of her window overlooking the city of Berlin.
Ury’s paintings initially suffered quite a hostile reception, but he was fortunate to have enjoyed the support of Adolph von Menzel, who became his advocate in the Academy.
Ury took to some more conventional motifs, such as this beautiful pastel of Tiergarten in Winter from 1892. This shows the large park to the west of the Brandenburger Tor, with its river frozen over and a good covering of snow.
In 1893, he joined the Munich Secession.
Woman at a Writing-Desk from 1898 is another everyday interior, as a woman, a pianist perhaps, sits writing at her bureau-style desk.
He still seems to have returned to Berlin on occasion, and like many artists towards the turn of the century painted some fine works showing café life. Ury’s Evening at the Café Bauer from 1898 shows one of the best-known coffeehouses in Berlin at that time, founded in 1877 on a corner along the Unter den Linden. Ury painted scenes here on several occasions, helped by the fact that it installed electric lights as early as 1884.
In 1901, Ury returned to Berlin, and joined the Berlin Secession.
He continued to paint landscapes, including this fine pastel of Spring from 1903, and his reputation grew steadily. In tomorrow’s article, I will show a few of his paintings from the twentieth century, in which he established himself at last.