Lovis Corinth (full name Franz Heinrich Louis Corinth; 21 July 1858, Tapiau, now Gvardeysk, Kaliningrad Oblast — 17 July 1925, Zandvoort) was a German artist, graphic artist, and the author of a number of books and articles on painting. He made a significant contribution to German impressionism, although he reached heights in the field of expressionism. He was an influential member, and since 1911 — the chairman of the Berlin Secession. During his lifetime, he was considered one of the leading figures of German art, his works were superbly sold. However, during the Third Reich, his painting was declared degenerate art. As a result, about 300 paintings by Corinth were removed from German galleries, some of them were destroyed or sold to Switzerland.
Peculiar features of Lovis Corinth's art. He painted a great variety of both his own and others’ portraits in an energetic, somewhere ironic and extremely emotional manner. Corinth’s paintings based on biblical and ancient Greek subjects are distinguished by drama and overwhelming sensuality. His landscapes and still lifes breathe raw and unbridled energy of life; the artist teased both skinned bull carcasses and naked female bodies with the same passion and vigour.
Famous paintings of Lovis Corinth: Self-portrait with Skeleton, Descent from the Cross, Self-Portrait with His Wife and a Glass of Champagne, Witches, Morning Sun, Innocentia, Behold the Man.
If the artist Corinth had got on the couch to his eminent contemporary, Herr Freud, the latter would undoubtedly have found the origins of the provocative, expressive and even painful art in his childhood. And he would be right.
The life of the growing Lovis was full of contradictions. On the one hand, the ancestral house in Tapiau was located opposite a real medieval castle of the Teutonic Order, the dream of any boy. On the other hand, the father’s tanning business meant the child’s daily contact with death: he learned too early how cattle were slaughtered and skinned.
This had left such an imprint on his mind that later, recalling his childhood in one of his books, Corinth conveyed his impression through the eyes of his fictional character, Heinrich (this is one of the names of the artist christened as Franz Heinrich Louis). It was he, and not Lovis, who, as a boy, had been to the slaughterhouse and watched the city river turn into blood. He inhaled the white steam emanating from the colourful entrails of animals hung on iron hooks.
His family did not lead smooth life either. Louis, as his intelligent father called the boy in the literary High German dialect, was the only common child of his parents, in addition to five more children from the first marriage of the early widowed Wilhelmina. But she also died when Louis was 13 years old.
All for art’s sake
The father saw the talent of his son, who mastered the literacy already at the age of five, and from the age of six showed remarkable artistic talents, and set himself the goal of giving him an appropriate education. Eight-year-old Louis was sent to the Koenigsberg gymnasium, where he immersed into drawing.
There Corinth received a comprehensive knowledge of the myths of Ancient Greece and Rome, studied Greek and Latin. Subsequently, this would be reflected in his famous canvases based on mythological motives.
By the way, despite the fact that all his fellow students spoke the literary language and the boy had to endure a lot of ridicule because of his Low German dialect, after becoming an artist, he would proudly sign his works exactly as his name sounded in his native dialect, Lovis Corinth. The history of art knows him exactly by this name.
After the death of his wife, his father Heinrich sold their estate in Tapiau to move to his son to Koenigsberg and be able to pay for his studies at the local art academy. “Fortune looks up. I will be an artist”, Corinth would write. “I was faithful to my profession and never even thought about treason.”
After studying for four years, on the advice of his close mentor and father’s friend, academy teacher Otto Günther, Lovis went to the more prestigious Academy of Arts in Munich. There he honed his skills until 1884, with a break for military service.
Furore, collapse and rise from the ashes
Just three months of study in Flemish Antwerp become a landmark for the aspiring artist. Although, according to his memoirs, Corinth did not like the city at all, in the studio of the local artist Paul Eugène Gorge, critics noticed his first painting. Following the Conspiracy, which was awarded the bronze medal of the London Salon, Corinth produced another famous painting titled Negro Othello — rather a politically incorrect title by today’s standards.
In 1884, his next stop was the Académie Julian in Paris. In the world capital of romance and love, Corinth was seriously fond of drawing nude, which would subsequently have a noticeable impact on his work and even become one of the artist’s trademarks.
But the first real triumph came after his first painting on a religious subject. The Pieta painting, which has not survived to this day (destroyed by the Nazis in 1945), received an award at the Paris Salon of 1890 and inspired him to create a mythological subject with the foolish “Diogenes”. He failed to repeat the triumph, and after the failure of the picture, Corinth fell into despair and even encroached on his own life with morphine.
Fortunately, his colleague Otto Eckmann was nearby. He brought the artist to his senses and recommended to paint something that would leave indifferent neither critics nor ordinary art lovers. Luckily, the soil for such a plan was sown a long time ago, in the deep childhood of Lovis. Therefore, in the early 1890s, the scandalous In the Slaughter House series was born, which glorified Corinth and returned him both the recognition of the public and the thirst to live and create.
After that, the artist’s affairs went only uphill. Gradually, he became a major figure in German art, one of the first to bring the fresh wind of impressionism into the inveterate German painting. Although earlier, while studying at the Parisian Académie Julian, the acute trend passed by Corinth, without touching him. Still, it took him several years to throw off the academic shackles.
The Germans, who traditionally disliked everything French, had long ignored and condemned the ultra-fashionable manner in painting. But still they were forced to surrender under the pressure of the Munich Secession, which brought the works of the French impressionists despite the indignation and protests of the conservative public.
Freemasons, Charlotte and paralysis
In 1886, the artist Corinth managed to become one of the founders of the still living Masonic lodge Firm in Fidelity (German: In Treue fest was the motto of the Kingdom of Bavaria that existed for a little over a century). In memory of this “hobby”, descendants were left with a colourful The Lodge Brothers group portrait.
Disappointed in the Munich Secession, which rejected his Salome painting, on which Corinth had his hopes riding, in 1901 he moved to Berlin. In the progressive capital city, the defiantly sensual and overly naturalistic canvas was accepted very well, thus the Berlin Secession welcomed the artist with their open arms. And over time, after the resignation of Max Liebermann in 1911, Corinth would become the head of this alliance of German figures who opposed the stagnation of classical art.
In Berlin, Lovis also found his family happiness. He married his student Charlotte Berend (Corinth taught at his own art school for women). The young Jewish beauty became the artist’s permanent muse and the mother of his children Thomas and Wilhelmine.
At the very peak of his career, just after being elected chairman of the Berlin Secession, Corinth got half paralyzed due to a stroke. Fortunately, as fate would have it, the paralysis spared his hand with which he could paint. But the disease left a distinct mark on the artist’s work: his smears became even sharper, the palette darkened significantly, the canvases were almost deprived of irony and love of life.
Walchensee, the new German order and Pasternak
In 1919, Corinth and Charlotte moved to a house by the picturesque Walchensee lake, which was hidden in the middle of the Bavarian Alps. There he painted landscapes and still lifes in an expressive manner, which were wildly popular with the public. They went off like hot cakes: according to the artist, they were “literally ripped off the easel”.
Just six years after finding his new home, pneumonia sent Corinth to a better world. Fortunately, Lovis did not live to see the time when the National Socialists declared the artist’s legacy “degenerate art” in 1937, confiscated hundreds of his paintings from German museums and galleries, and then subjected Lovis Corinth’s paintings to destruction and exile abroad, mainly to Switzerland.
The last years of Corinth’s life were marked by friendship with the artist Leonid Pasternak, the father of the Nobel laureate in literature, Boris Pasternak. The Hamburg Art Museum contains a portrait of Leonid Osipovich by his German friend and colleague. The news of Corinth’s death terribly upset the Russian artist: “This news came as a bombshell: whatever you say, he was the largest painter in Germany... The largest and most real, he had great temperament, which progressed the older he got, and, despite his paralyzed half body, he worked incredibly hard and tirelessly... Thus, for me personally, this is a very sensitive loss. This is the only artist whom I respected both as a very decent person and as an artistically integral temperament.”
Written by Natalia Azarenko