Wilhelm Leibl

Wilhelm Leibl
(Cologne 1844 - 1900 Würzburg)

Portrait of a Boy, c. 1869-70

Oil on canvas, 32.4 x 28 cm
Signed upper right W.Leibl

Otto Körtge, Oschersleben;
H. Schild, Berlin;
German private collection.

Expert report from Professor Emil Waldmann (1938)
Expert report from Dr. Marianne von Manstein (2022)




We are grateful to Dr. Marianne von Manstein for providing her written report on the painting. It is summarized here.

Wilhelm Leibl’s Portrait of a Boy is a veritable discovery. Unfortunately, the painting was not submitted to the Leibl expert, Professor Emil Waldmann, for authentication until 1938, eight years after his catalogue raisonné of Leibl’s paintings had appeared. Waldmann approved the painting and produced a report.[1] The work has remained unpublished to this day and therefore unknown to Leibl scholars.[2]

The painting focuses on the tightly-cropped bust portrait of a young boy depicted in three-quarter profile to the right. His eyes are directed away from the viewer and he gazes out of the painting with a pensive, somewhat distant expression, as if staring into space absorbed in thought. The serene pose and tight cropping of the image are characteristics of Leibl's work. They emphasize the naturalness of the portrait without lending it a fleeting quality. The pale tones of the boy’s face provide a vibrant contrast to the dark background. Light streaming in from the left provides no key to the light source or the time of day. The surrounding space, finely nuanced in subtle shades of brown and ocher, remains undefined.

The theme of adolescence was a central leitmotif of Leibl’s oeuvre. The present work expresses the physical as well as mental ambivalence of adolescence particularly well. Sometimes, gender identity is not yet clear-cut. The soft, fine facial features, half-length hair, rich red lips and undefined clothing of the subject depicted suggest the model could also be a girl. In line with this, Waldmann, for example, speaks of a girl's head in his report. The subject’s androgynous quality is consonant with the open handling of the paint. Loose, open brushwork defines the slightly unkempt hair. Although the flesh tints are applied more delicately the facial features are less highly worked up. The tones are subtly differentiated but at the same time the entire portrait has a spontaneous, cursory quality suggestive of an unfinished piece. Nonetheless, it would appear from the signature[3] at the upper right that Leibl regarded the portrait as a finished work.

Fig. 1: Wilhelm Leibl, Portrait of Frau Gedon, 1869, oil on canvas, 119.5 x 95.5 cm, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlung, Neue Pinakothek Munich, inv. 8708.

Such a bold painterly approach is not unusual in Leibl's work in the period 1869 to 1870, to which this work belongs, although undated. The openness of the brushwork and the choice of palette recall one of Leibl’s major works, Portrait of Frau Gedon (Fig. 1), which was also painted in the same period. Details such as the painterly treatment of the hairline show great similarity. The two works also share a debt to Rembrandt in terms of brushwork, their use of chiaroscuro and handling of color.

At the same time, the rapport between Leibl's artistic convictions and contemporary developments in French art grew increasingly evident. When Gustave Courbet, an acclaimed Realist, traveled to Munich in 1869 for the ‘Erste Internationale Kunstausstellung’ he reacted very favorably to Leibl’s work. The two artists struck up a friendship and Courbet extended an invitation to his younger German colleague to visit him in Paris. Leibl followed up the invitation later that year. He exhibited at the Salon, where he was awarded a gold medal and feted by the critics for his Portrait of Frau Gedon.[4]

  1. Waldmanns report is available on request.

  2. Emil Waldmann, Wilhelm Leibl. Eine Darstellung seiner Kunst. Gesamtverzeichnis seiner Gemälde, Berlin 1930.

  3. The signature is clearly legible, although fragmentarily preserved. Recent scientific examination has affirmed the signature’s authenticity. When Emil Waldmann examined the work in 1938 the signature was probably in better condition. He gave it as W. Leibl and stated explicitly: ‘On further examination the signature was found to be of the same age as the painting itself. It is executed in the same pigment as the red of the lips and displays the style of signature (he) often used at the time.’

  4. See Leibl’s letter from Paris to his parents, dated May 6, 1870, cited in Marianne von Manstein, exhib. cat., Wilhelm Leibl, Zurich 2019, p.22: ‘My name is now famed all over Paris and in such a way that three art dealers were in my studio yesterday all at once, wanting to buy everything I had, down to the tiniest sketch and the most fleeting brushstroke.’

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