Lesser Ury

Lesser Ury (Birnbaum 1861 - 1931 Berlin)

Self-Portrait – Ich selbst, als ich krank war [Myself, while I was ill], 1915

Oil on panel, 41 x 30.5 cm
Signed, dated and titled Ich selbst / als ich krank war / L Ury / 1915
Bearing the estate stamp on the verso

Provenance:
Berlin, Paul Cassirer, Lesser Ury’s Estate Sale, 21 October 1932, no. 65 (repr.)
Dr. Carl Schapira (Carlos Soria), New York
Jewish Museum New York, (inv. 21-54)
With Gallery Bühler, Stuttgart (sold in 1972)
Private collection, Baden-Württemberg

Exhibited:
Lesser Ury 1861-1931: Exhibition of Paintings and Drawings, New York, Jewish Museum, autumn 1951, no. 22 (repr. on the cover)

Literature:
Adolph Donath, Lesser Ury: seine Stellung in der modernen deutschen Malerei, Berlin 1921, p. 133, fig. 65
Hermann Schlögl and Karl Schwarz, Lesser Ury - Zauber des Lichts Ein Lebensbericht nach Dokumenten und Briefen, exhib. cat. Berlin, Käthe-Kollwitz-Museum, 1995, pp. 96-7, no. 35 (repr.)

 

 

 

Lesser Ury’s[1] name is synonymous with the glamour of belle-époque Berlin. His masterly oil paintings and pastels conjure up the bright lights and excitement of the big city, and fashionable life, cafe scenes by night and lamplight reflected on rain-swept streets.

The present self-portrait, which is titled in Ury’s hand Ich selbst, als ich krank war, catches him in a very personal moment. The year of execution, 1915, marked a turning point in his life. He is known to have begun to suffer from episodes of severe depression at about this time. All his late self-portraits reflect these episodes. Earlier, he had carefully portrayed himself as a fêted and successful society painter. This self-portrait, however, brutally exposes the intensity of his psychological distress. The inscribed title – in the lower left corner of the painting – refers to it directly and also communicates a clear signal. His fragile mental and physical state caused him severe stress. In the present self-portrait his expression is blank, his cheeks hollow, his facial features pinched. Self-doubt was to plague him for the rest of his life and it is quite evident that it impacted his artistic output. There is a tragic quality to the fact that it is precisely Ury’s late work that is so highly rated.[2]

Looking back on his career, Ury noted in 1921: Life was not pleasant for me, art was not easy and the critics were harsh. He was a pronounced individualist and led a solitary life. In retrospect, he felt that his life and career had not run smoothly. He found little justification in the fact that his contemporaries Max Liebermann, Lovis Corinth and Max Slevogt were always more favourably reviewed. Ury openly criticized Liebermann for pirating the technique he had developed to depict the effects of light. Liebermann, however, had the press on his side and emerged from the dispute the winner.[3] This damaged Ury’s reputation and the negative repercussions seriously undermined his fragile mental state. But although he had to fight to win recognition in his early career, by 1910 he was a successful and recognized painter. By then, reviews had become less abrasive and his work had begun to attract the interest of collectors. When Corinth replaced Liebermann as president of the Berlin Secession in 1915 Liebermann could no longer block Ury’s participation at the popular Secessionist exhibitions. This, too, was to increase awareness of Ury’s work. He was given honorary membership of the Berlin Secession in 1921. A special exhibition was staged to mark his sixtieth birthday in 1922.

Ury’s œuvre chiefly focuses on the excitement of life in the streets of Berlin. He is perhaps best known for his virtuoso rendering of the effects of light in views of the city’s streets and cafes at night. His paintings are at times filled with the sense of anonymity and alienation associated with life in a big modern city.

Ury published a lithograph of the present self-portrait[4] but the painting itself remained in his personal collection until his death. It then passed to his friend and leading collector Dr. Carl Schapira (1879-1957). When the Nazis seized power in 1933 Schapira was forced to leave Germany. He emigrated to New York, where he lived under an assumed name – Dr. Carlos Soria.[5] His important collection of works by Lesser Ury was exhibited at the Jewish Museum in New York in 1951. The cover illustration of the catalogue featured this painting.

Dr. Sibylle Gros, the author of the forthcoming catalogue raisonné of Ury’s work, has confirmed the authenticity of the present painting.


[1] Ury grew up in considerable material hardship. His family was Jewish and came from the province of Posen, then in Prussia. Despite the disadvantages of poverty he succeeded in obtaining a place at the Düsseldorf Academy of Art. He studied at the Academy in the years 1879-80. He later travelled to Brussels, Antwerp, Paris and Munich to hone his artistic skills. He settled in Berlin in 1887. His works were first publicly shown at an exhibition with work by Hans Thoma and Max Liebermann at the Galerie Fritz Gurlitt in 1890. Adolph von Menzel reviewed his paintings very favourably and on the back of this Ury was awarded the ‘Michael-Beer-Preis’. The prize funded a twelve-month study trip to Italy and also enabled him to live and work for a time in Rome and Capri. Ury died in 1931 within a few weeks of his seventieth birthday – just before the opening of a major retrospective arranged by Dr. Ludwig Justi, the director of the Nationalgalerie, to mark his birthday. Ury is buried in the Jewish cemetery in Berlin-Weissensee.

[2] Hermann Schlögl and Karl Schwarz, Lesser Ury - Zauber des Lichts Ein Lebensbericht nach Dokumenten und Briefen, exhib. cat. Berlin, Käthe-Kollwitz-Museum, 1995, pp. 84-6.

[3] Herman Schlögl and Matthias Winzen, Lesser Ury und das Licht, exhib. cat., Baden-Baden, Museum für Kunst und Technik des 19. Jahrhunderts, 5 April-31 August 2014, pp. 101-37.

[4] Detlev Rosenbach, Lesser Ury: das druckgraphische Werk, Berlin 2002, p. 132, no. 93 (repr.).

[5] Schlögl and Winzen, op. cit., 2014, p. 113.

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