The Berlin Secession was founded by artists in 1898 as an alternative to the conservative exhibition and patronage policies of the art associations and of the state. In 1898, when the official salon jury rejected a landscape painting by Walter Leistikow—a leader of the group of Berlin artists supportive of modernist trends—the group broke away from the Association of Berlin Artists to found the Secession. Throughout Central Europe at the time, artists were forming secessions in order to organize their own exhibitions, establish their own galleries and publications, and nurture a more progressive art public. A number of Jewish collectors supported the Berlin Secession and helped finance the building of its exhibition hall.

The painter Max Liebermann — perhaps the only Jew among its sixty-five founding members—served as the Berlin Secession’s first president. From a prominent and wealthy family, Liebermann was at first known for his naturalistic and sympathetic depiction of working people. This naturalism informed his controversial painting The Twelve-Year-Old Jesus in the Temple (1879); his unidealized depiction of Jesus was criticized as "the ugliest, most impertinent Jewish boy imaginable." As Liebermann’s work grew more impressionistic in palette and brushwork during the 1890s, he began to paint his own class, the upper bourgeoisie, engaged in leisure activities, or as subjects of his sought-after portraits.

Liebermann proposed to the Secession that Paul and Bruno Cassirer, two cousins who had recently started a gallery and publishing house in Berlin, serve as its business managers. Bruno resigned from the Secession in 1901 and became sole owner of the publishing firm, devoted to modern literature, art history, and cultural studies. Paul took over the gallery, becoming the champion of French Impressionism and Post-Impressionism in Germany; he was the first to present major exhibitions of the works of Van Gogh and Cézanne. Paul Cassirer supported several Secession artists, among them the sculptors August Gaul and Ernst Barlach.

The Secession revitalized the Berlin art scene, attracting artists to the city from elsewhere in Germany. Lovis Corinth and Max Slevogt, together with Liebermann the leading representatives of German Impressionism, moved from Munich. Käthe Kollwitz—who had participated in the first exhibition of 1899—became a member, as did Georg Kolbe, Max Beckmann, and Lyonel Feininger, among the younger generation. The Secession did not promote a single artistic style. As Liebermann declared at the opening of the first exhibition in 1899: "In selecting the works . . . talent alone, whatever its style, was the determinant. . . . We do not believe in a single, sacred direction in art."

Although most members of the Secession did not produce overtly political art—Kollwitz was an important exception—modernism was politicized in Berlin. Conservatives condemned the Secession’s cosmopolitan values and its exhibition of foreign art as reflecting the subversion of German culture by alien influences.

Thomas Theodor Heine
Poster for Exhibition of the Berlin Secession, April-September 1912
25 3/4 x 55 1/2 in. (65.5 x 90 cm)
Kunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin-Preussischer Kulturbesitz
Walter Leistikow
Evening Landscape in the Mark Brandenburg (Märkische Abendlandschaft), 1897
Oil on canvas
24 1/4 x 18 1/2 in. (61.5 x 47 cm)
Museum Ostdeutsche Galerie, Regensburg
Max Liebermann
Self-Portrait with Brush and Palette (Selbstbildnis mit Pinsel und Palette), 1913
Oil on canvas
35 x 28 1/2 in. (89 x 72.4 cm)
Kunstmuseum Düsseldorf
Lesser Ury
At the Friedrichstrasse Station (Am Bahnhof Friedrichstrasse), 1888
Opaque watercolor on board
25 1/2 x 18 1/4 in. (65.5 x 46.8 cm)
Stiftung Stadtmuseum Berlin. Purchased with funds from the Museumsstiftung Dr. Otto and Ilse Augustin