In its original form, this painting by Max Liebermann (1847–1935)
produced the greatest art scandal of the Bismarckian era. The trouble
began during Munich’s First International Art Exhibition in 1879—that
is, when a wave of antisemitic agitation and propaganda was just
beginning to break over Germany. The art critic for the
Augsburger Allgemeine Zeitung,
Friedrich Pecht, declared that Liebermann had painted “the ugliest,
know-it-all Jewish boy imaginable,” adding that the artist had shown the
Jewish elders as “a rabble of the filthiest haggling Jews.” German
feelings, Pecht believed—and others concurred—had been offended by this
blasphemous painting. Not long thereafter, Pecht’s critique was cited in
debates in the Bavarian state parliament, where one deputy declared that
Liebermann [himself a Jew] should have known better than to paint this
scene; and the painting was reviled as a stench in the nostrils of
decent people. That Liebermann was not only a Jew but also a Prussian
liberal did not sit well either. The antisemitic leader of the Christian
Social Party, Court ChaplainAdolf Stoeker, directed a hail of invective
against the artist, whose nationalist credentials were not enhanced in
1881 when he became the first German artist since the Franco-Prussian
War of 1870-71 to receive an award from a great salon of Paris.
Liebermann’s painting, which quickly became a
cause célèbre, pitted antisemites and
traditionalists against other progressive painters of the day, including
Wilhelm Leibl, Franz von Lenbach, and Fritz von Uhde (the latter bought
and kept the painting until 1911).
If Friedrich Pecht’s description of Liebermann’s Jesus seems
ill-suited to the long-haired, slightly effeminate, blond boy featured
in the present canvas, then this is because Liebermann, in response to
critical outcry, repainted the figure before it was included in a Paris
exhibition in 1884. Fortunately, a sketch of the untouched 1879 version
has been preserved, so we know that Liebermann had originally depicted a
barefoot boy with short, unkempt dark hair and a stereotypical Jewish
profile. In the sketch, the boy gestures assertively and assumes a
provocative stance as he argues with the Jewish elders. In the reworked
version, shown here, Liebermann changed the young Jesus’s appearance.
The figure once described as an “urchin” now appears as a serious,
intelligent—perhaps slightly deferential—child. Nevertheless, this
dramatic change won over virtually none of Liebermann’s earlier critics.
The painting was not exhibited again until the Berlin Secession
exhibition of 1907.