Lesser Ury • Nocturnal Street Scene in Berlin
Charcoal on cardboard
49.5 x 31.5 cm
Signed lower right
Private Collection, Israel
Private Collection, Germany
1861 Birnbaum - 1931 Berlin
Lesser Ury’s father died in 1872. In the following year his mother moved with her three young sons to Berlin, the burgeoning capital of the German Empire. The family was Jewish and came from the town of Birnbaum in the province of Posen, then in Prussia. Ury grew up in considerable material hardship and his difficult childhood was to leave a profound mark on him. He developed into something of an outsider, maintaining an inherently strained relationship with his environment throughout his life.
Ury travelled widely between 1879 and 1887 to hone his artistic skills and was in Düsseldorf, Brussels, Antwerp, Paris and Munich. His travels gave him exposure to a wide range of contemporary artistic tendencies, but he was particularly receptive to French Impressionism. On his return to Berlin he sought to forge close links with Max Liebermann. Liebermann was not only widely respected as a painter but also something of a leader in the artistic community and enjoying growing influence on art policies in Berlin – first as a co-founder of the ‘Vereinigung der XI’ [Group of Eleven] in 1892, then as chairman of the Berlin Secession and later, as president of the Prussian Academy of Arts. Initially, the rapport between the two was amicable but the relationship ended in bitter animosity when Ury publicly claimed to have assisted Liebermann in the completion of a painting Liebermann had sold to the Nationalgalerie. The negative repercussions of Ury’s allegation severely damaged his own reputation. Right up to his death Liebermann refused to confirm or deny the allegation. Ury’s access to prominent artistic circles was systematically blocked by his former friend and he was made to endure years of ostracization and social isolation.
Ury’s repertoire of subjects was very wide-ranging. He painted portraits, interiors, still lifes, religious motifs and landscapes. But he had a particular penchant for the bright lights, bustle and excitement of the big city. Unsociable as he may have been, he was not shy of mingling in the busy cafes that lined the grand boulevards of Berlin. In this milieu he had opportunity to study the lifestyle of the affluent classes at first hand. He would make rapid sketches sur le motif which served as the basis for later studio paintings – striking interior scenes exploiting the shimmer and glow of artificial light and evocative studies of social situations and relationships. But his preferred theme was undoubtedly the dynamism and motion that governed the city’s streets. His images convey the throbbing pace of urban life and the changing atmospheric effects at different times of day and year with extraordinary immediacy. He used virtuoso, impressionistic brushwork to capture the gleam of lamplight and the reflection of carriages and cars on rain-swept boulevards. Today, Ury’s oeuvre is recognized and appreciated far beyond the bounds of Berlin and has come to epitomize the essence of modern city life.
Ostracized for decades, Ury consistently pursued his own course but was finally granted the long-awaited public recognition he deserved. In 1910 he was honoured with an ‘Ehrensaal’ at the ‘Große Berliner Kunstaustellung’. In 1916 the noted gallerist Paul Cassirer staged a special exhibition to showcase his work and in 1921, to mark his sixtieth birthday, Ury was given honorary membership of the Berlin Secession. His breakthrough came in 1923, when the Nationalgalerie acquired a group of his paintings, thus firmly establishing him in the canon of twentieth-century art German art.