Liebermann stayed at Scheveningen during the summers of 1900 and 1901 and found inspiration for his paintings in scenes of riders, tennis players and bathers on the beach of this fashionable resort, of which he executed numerous drawings and sketches. The present work was the first large-scale oil of the subject of riders on the beach – a motif that would pre-occupy Liebermann in the following years and re-occur in his oeuvre until 1917.
Two Riders on the Beach was previously only known from a photo in the 1902 Jahrbuch der Bildenden Kunst and has not been seen in public since. Mathias Eberle speculates in his catalogue raisonné on the artist that the painting may have been executed in 1900, as a visitor to Liebermann’s studio in the winter of 1900 noted: 'Several beach scenes from Scheveningen are hanging here and there: grey-green strongly animated water, grey sky – you can literally smell the sea air. On a few of the larger studies and sketches one can see two riders on brown horses in the foreground' (quoted in J. Norden; 'Bei Max Liebermann' in Die Gegenwart, vol. 58, no. 50, 15.12.1900, p. 374).
In the present composition, the riders are in casual riding attire, crossing the beach of the seaside resort; the horse in the foreground trots placidly on the sand while the other appears unsettled, his hoofs submerged in water. The scene is captured at the moment when the rider in the front turns towards his companion, whose horse prances skittishly, avoiding the waves. The composition derives its dynamic from the subtle differences in the movement of the horses and their riders, as well as from the powerful depiction of the animals against the waves and the grey-blue sky. In his sketches executed in Scheveningen Liebermann developed images of riders on both calm and nervous horses, and here the two are combined to create a subtle, yet powerful composition.
Images of horses and riders featured in Liebermann’s art throughout his career, in scenes depicting horse races and polo games. However, they are rarely depicted with such elegance and poise as in the present work. A contemporary critic described the scene: ‘They are two riders from the Circus Schumann, which is open all summer in Scheveningen. The horses are trained every morning on the beach, as the soft sand makes a great riding runway. It is thus a mundane activity which has been upgraded by the artist’s hand. The whole picture is full of life and dynamism: the morning light surrounding the horses, the white-tipped waves, the cool breeze that plays with the horses’ manes’ (‘Zu unseren Bildern’, in Berliner Architekturwelt, 1902, issue 9, p. 330).
Liebermann approached his paintings with a spontaneity and palette that were clearly indebted to the French Impressionist. Barbara Gilbert has written on Liebermann’s production at the turn of the century, when his style was at its most experimental: ‘Although Liebermann was preoccupied by his duties in the Berlin Secession from 1899 until 1911, this phase proved to be the most adventuresome and experimental of his painting career. He had achieved his most inventive and exuberant body of work, in a series that explored aspects of paintings beyond a direct portrayal of a subject. […] This more experimental period of Liebermann’s career coincides with his expanding rise as an art theorist and writer. Each artist must look closely at the life around him, he wrote, and have the courage and freedom to interpret it from his own perspective: 'Nature viewed by all artists according to their individuality remains fundamental – the alpha and omega.' (B. C. Gilbert, Max Liebermann, From Realism to Impressionism (exhibition catalogue), Skirball Center, Los Angeles & Jewish Museum, New York, 2005-06, pp. 43-44).
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