Disillusioned with what he considered to be the outdated and conservative German artistic establishment, Max Liebermann left his native country to travel to new European cities during the 1870s, in pursuit of absorbing the new artistic developments that were taking place elsewhere. He had gone first to Paris, arriving full of excitement and curiosity, eager to meet the French Barbizon and Impressionist artists who were at the cutting edge of the European avantgarde. This enthusiasm, however, was quickly dampened by the cool reception he received. Although his works were accepted to various Salons and exhibitions, they often met with a poor critical reception, on account of his being both German and Jewish. For these same reasons, he was snubbed by many of the French artists he had longed to meet. Discouraged, he made the decision to leave France for Holland, taking with him the techniques and subjects he had gleaned from the French artists, most notably plein air painting, an Impressionistic style of painting and new subject matters: images of contemporary life rather than historic genre scenes.
He first visited Holland in the 1870s, where he and his art received a far warmer welcome. Even after his return to Germany, he frequently travelled back, always creating a new body of work during these trips. He had first painted the Judengasse, the Jewish quarter in Amsterdam, during his initial visit. From 1905 to 1910, however, it became a central source of inspiration to his œuvre, as he embarked on a cycle of paintings which captured and celebrated the everyday life of this part of the city. Painted in 1905, Judengasse in Amsterdam, Uilenburgersteeg Ecke Jodenbreestraat is one of the earlier works this series, created from a room he had hired on the Jodenbreestraat, a street which carried great art historical significance: Rembrandt, one of Liebermann’s idols, had resided on it a couple of centuries prior. Though the streets below were far too crowded for Liebermann to paint in them, the room afforded him a view over them. He placed his easel and canvas in front of the open windows, to come as close to plein air painting as was possible. Jodenbreestraat was amongst the busiest streets in the city, so although this arrangement somewhat limited the views and angles with which he could depict the location, these constantly changing scenes and figures provided a rich body of source material.
Judengasse in Amsterdam, Uilenburgersteeg Ecke was painted whilst Liebermann was the president of the Berlin Secession. By this point, he had achieved critical and commercial success, allowing him to be more daring with his painting. This period is often considered to be one of the most adventurous and experimental of his career, and Judengasse in Amsterdam, Uilenburgersteeg Ecke is an excellent showcase of the ways in which Liebermann pushed the boundaries of his artistic practice during this time. This location – the corner between two of Amsterdam’s liveliest streets, Jodenbreestraat and Uilenburgerstreet (the latter of which no longer exists), took his painting to the limits. It necessitated working with extreme speed and precision before the figures below moved on. His quick and expressive brushstrokes, and talent as a colourist capture the bustle of life, the flurry of movement and the energy of the figures that hurry along the streets. The result is a rich tapestry of contemporary life – market stalls surrounded by the crouching figures of their sellers and customers, adults hurrying through clinging to their children’s hands, the upright figure of a policeman in the foreground, a horse rider turning onto the street, against a heap of fresh leeks and carrots.
These scenes of the Judengasse are some of the most famous in Liebermann’s works. Renowned German art critic Karl Schleffler, who wrote one of Liebermann’s biographies, wrote of their cultural and artistic importance: ‘[They] did not only speak powerfully to the Jews, they not only represented something reminiscent of the daily life in Holland or in Amsterdam, the neighbourhood not only reminded Liebermann of their most honoured painter, of Rembrandt, but rather all of the elements came together, nourishing Liebermann’s artistic strength which had reached a high point. These were subjects for a colourist and for the accomplished master of a type of shorthand that suggested the sensation of the entire milieu through the use of excited brushstrokes. Liebermann has never been more fresh, free naïve or sensuous than during these years.’ (K. Schleffler, Max Liebermann, Munich, 1922, p. 157).
Max Liebermann had close ties to the Cassirer family and found a significant patron in Alfred Cassirer (1875-1932), the head of Cassirer & Co AG, a cable and rubber company. Alfred – with the help of his older brother, the renowned art dealer Paul (1871-1926) - built up a large art collection featuring Liebermann, as well as sculptures, furniture and carpets. Alfred and his wife Johanna (Hanna) Sotschek (1887-1974) had a daughter Eva (1920-2009).
Alfred Cassirer died in 1932. According to his will, part of the collection was given on permanent loan to the City of Berlin and exhibited in the Ermelerhaus in 1933. His sole heir, Eva, was bequeathed the collection but it was to be managed on her behalf until she reached the age of thirty, and the Estate’s managers were forbidden to sell any works unless in case of financial emergency. This sadly became the case in 1933 when the Nazis came to power and persecutory tax demands were made.
How the present Liebermann left the Alfred Cassirer Estate collection remains unclear but in 1936, it was in the hands of the Berlin-based art collector Robert Neumann (1875-1937) and his second wife Ilse Meinhart-Tucholsky (1887-1940), a cousin of the famous writer Kurt Tucholsky. Robert Neumann owned the Sommerfeld department store in Königsberg (today’s Kaliningrad). Like the Cassirers, he knew Max Liebermann, owning several of his artworks, and had his portrait painted by the artist in 1925.
Because of their Jewish heritage, the Neumanns suffered severe persecution beginning in 1933. Robert Neumann’s son from his first marriage, Robert Max (1899/1900-1933), was killed in March 1933. Consequently, Robert and Ilse left Germany for Merano in the Italian Tyrol in 1935. Through the assistance of émigré art dealer Dr. Fritz Nathan (1895-1972), the Neumanns were able to transfer at least 54 objects of their art collection to the Kunstmuseum St. Gallen between 1936 and 1938. The "Judengasse" was brought to Switzerland in 1936 and was made part of the "Sturzenegger Collection" in order to bring it out of the sight of the Nazi regime.
Robert Neumann died in Merano in 1937. Again with the help of Dr. Fritz Nathan, Ilse Neumann managed to emigrate to the USA in July 1939, but died in 1940, only months after her arrival. She bequeathed the art collection to Robert’s grandchildren, Thomas Bernhard (d. 1945) and his granddaughter Toni Neumann (1927-2012).