Lovis Corinth

Lovis Corinth
(Tapiau 1858 - 1925 Zandvoort)

'Lebensfreude', 1898

Oil on canvas, 86.5 x 96.5 cm
Signed lower left Lovis Corinth
Numbered 1237 on a Kunsthalle Basel label pasted to the verso; further numbered 1265 and 240

Carl Strathmann (1866-1939), Munich;
Dr. H. Bünemann (1895-1976), Munich (lender Basel Kunsthalle 1936)1;
Stuttgart, Hartmann Greiner, auction sale, April 5, 1949, lot 8, pl. III;
Galerie Weber, Munich (1953);
Georg Schäfer private collection, Schweinfurt, inv. L 1407;
private collection, Germany.

Ausstellung der Luitpold Gruppe, Munich, Kunsthandlung Heinemann, February 1899 (as ‘Lebensfreude’);
Lovis Corinth. Katalog der Ausstellung des Lebenswerkes von Lovis Corinth, exhibition staged by Paul Cassirer at the Berliner Secession, January 19-February 23, 1913, p. 13, no. 38 (with the title ‘Freude am Leben’, and ‘not for sale’);
Gedächtnisausstellung Lovis Corinth, Berlin, Nationalgalerie, 1926, no. 58;
Lovis Corinth, Basel, Kunsthalle, 1936, no. 7 (‘private collection, Munich’);
Lovis Corinth, Stuttgart, Kunsthaus Bühler, 1983;
Zeitwende. Gemälde aus der Sammlung Schäfer, Schweinfurt, Museum Georg Schäfer, 1995, p. 28, no. 1, repr. in color.

Karl Voll, ‘Die Frühjahr-Ausstellung der Münchener Secession und der Luitpoldgruppe’, in Die Kunst für alle: Malerei, Plastik, Graphik, Architektur, April 13, 1899, pp. 198-9;
Alfred Kuhn, Lovis Corinth, Berlin 1925, p. 73, fig. 29;
Alfred Rohde, Der junge Corinth, Berlin 1941, p. 143, fig. 101;
Alfred Rohde (ed.), Lovis Corinth: sechzig Bilder, Kanterbücher, Königsberg 1942, repr. (‘private collection, Munich’);
Charlotte Berend-Corinth, Die Gemälde von Lovis Corinth: Werkkatalog, Munich 1958, no. 153, repr. p. 350;
Peter Hahn, Das literarische Figurenbild bei Lovis Corinth, Diss., Tübingen 1970, p. 81;
Charlotte Berend-Corinth, Lovis Corinth, die Gemälde: Werkverzeichnis, Munich 1992, no. 153, repr. p. 380;
Bruno Bushart, Matthias Eberle and Jens Christian Jensen, Museum Georg Schäfer, Schweinfurt. Erläuterungen zu den ausgestellten Werken, Schweinfurt 2002, pp. 58-9.


Lovis Corinth’s painting has long been the subject of speculation and controversy among art historians. Is it to be classified as a product of the nineteenth century or the twentieth century? Is it essentially traditional or can it be seen as a forerunner of modernism? Only recently have the apparent contradictions in his work and the absence of continuity come to be accepted and better understood. The German art historian Georg Bussmann noted in 1985: ‘He paints as if starting from the zero point of painting and each time it’s a case of “wrestling with an angel”. He sacrifices a portion of his professional credibility and experiences painting as the ultimate, true adventure.’2 Corinth’s early history paintings are highly likely to generate ambivalent feelings in the modern viewer. Their dramatic directness – often to the point of absurdity – surprises and shocks. One major aspect of his painting which earlier art historians frequently condemned as tasteless is however highly interesting – namely his naturalism.

This painting was executed in 1898, which was towards the end of Corinth’s second sojourn in Munich. In the 1890s the city was a major center of artistic innovation. By then Corinth was no longer an unknown painter. He had exhibited work at the Paris Salon and in London after a long and multifaceted apprenticeship. A first period of academic study in Königsberg was followed by a first stay in Munich from 1880 to 1883 training at the Academy of Art. Periods of further study abroad followed – a brief stay in Antwerp working under the painter Paul Eugène Gorge and a longer visit to Paris studying at the Académie Julian under Adolphe William Bougereau and Tony Robert-Fleury. Corinth visited Berlin in 1887, where he came into contact with Max Klinger, Walter Leistikow and Karl Stauffer-Bern. In Paris he was particularly impressed by the work of Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier and Jules Bastien-Lepage, and paintings by Wilhelm Leibl on exhibition there.

Nothing is known about the raison d’être of the present painting or the identity of the figures represented. Neither Corinth himself nor the sources available throw any light on the painting. However it is known that the title Lebensfreude is indeed the original title. The painting was exhibited with this title at the spring exhibition of the Luitpoldgruppe in Munich in 1899,3 a year after its execution. Charlotte Berend-Corinth, in the first edition of her catalogue raisonné published in 1958, mentions a large group of studies with an emphasis on hands.

Fig. 1 Lovis Corinth, Descent from the Cross, 1895, oil on canvas, 95 x 120 cm, Cologne, Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Fondation Corboud, inv. dep. 355.

Fig. 1 Lovis Corinth, Descent from the Cross, 1895, oil on canvas, 95 x 120 cm, Cologne, Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Fondation Corboud, inv. dep. 355.

Two young couples of marriageable age are depicted in the background. The couple on the left are singing from a song sheet. The couple on the right embrace tenderly while one of their interlaced hands ostentatiously displays a wedding ring. A woman in the foreground has her arms around a young boy and a girl in a protective gesture. All three hold a flower. In religious iconography the lily is a symbol of purity associated with the Annunciation and the rose is associated with the Virgin Mary. In portraiture the carnation symbolizes betrothal. Fluttering butterflies and branches of horse chestnut with pink blossom fill the last remaining space in this tightly composed composition. The complex interplay of the hands expresses the relationship between the figures in skillful old-masterly manner.

Fig. 2 Lovis Corinth, Crucifixion, 1897, oil on canvas, 36.3 x 46 cm, Bad Tölz, evangelische Johanneskirche.

It is instructive to compare the painting with other works executed both before and in 1898. Notable examples are the two masterly Slaughter House scenes of 1896-7 together with an important group of religio-historical and mythological subjects. These include Descent from the Cross (1895), which is very similar to the present painting in terms of compositional construction (Fig. 1); Bacchic Procession and Bacchanale (both 1896); Birth of Venus (1896); Crucifixion (1897) (Fig. 2); Susanna and the Elders (1897) and The Temptation of St. Anthony (1897). In this period he made a series of female portraits, tightly formulated busts and heads that strain to make eye contact with the viewer in a highly insistent way. It seems as if the central female figure in the present painting, whose features are shaded by a wide-brimmed hat, is also challenging the viewer to make eye contact. The resemblance between the young couple on the left and the figures of the Virgin Mary and St. John depicted in the Crucifixion of 1897 (Fig. 2) suggests that he used the same models. Corinth’s own portrait is recognizable in the grimacing features of the figure at the right in the Crucifixion. In spite of their countrified style of dress the figures depicted in the present painting are by no means country people. They are confident and unselfconscious, the models presumably being chosen from Corinth’s circle of friends. 

Fig. 3 Lovis Corinth, The Painter Carl Strathmann, 1895, oil on canvas, 111 x 82.2 cm, Munich, Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus und Kunstbau, inv. G 10755.

The personality of the present painting’s first owner might possibly help to explain its raison d’être. On completion it was immediately acquired by Carl Strathmann (1866-1939), a Munich painter who had earlier struck up a close friendship with Corinth. A series of postcards from Corinth to Strathmann attest to the warmth of their friendship and provide insight into their social milieu. In his autobiography Legenden aus dem Künstlerleben (1909/1918)4 Corinth characterizes his friend as a jovial bon vivant. The portrait he painted of Strathmann in 1895 represents him as a dandy brimming with self-confidence and lust for life (Fig. 3). It is thus not unlikely that the present painting was intended by Corinth as a personal tribute to his friend.

[1] See Staatsarchiv Basel-Stadt, Dossier PA 888a N 6 (1) 314.

[2] Georg Bussmann, Lovis Corinth, Carmencita, Malerei an der Kante, Frankfurt 1985, pp. 59-60.

[3] See Karl Voll, ‘Die Frühjahr-Ausstellung der Münchener Secession und der Luitpoldgruppe’, in Die Kunst für alle: Malerei, Plastik, Graphik, Architektur, April 13, 1899, p. 189.
For a discussion of the friendship see Nico Kirchberger (ed.), Jugendstil skurril. Carl Strathmann, exhib. cat. Münchener Stadtmuseum, Köln 2019, pp. 21, 30.

[4] The first edition appeared in 1909 and a revised edition was published in 1918. See http://www.zeno.org/Kunst/M/Corinth,+Lovis/Legenden+aus+dem+K%C3%BCnstlerleben/Carl+Strathmann (accessed January 22, 2020).

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