Old Master Paintings, Drawings, and British Portraits


WALTHER FIRLE (Breslau 1859 – Munich 1929) 

Ein Altes Lied (An Old Song)

signed WALTHERŸFIRLEŸMUENCHEN. in the upper left and directly below partially effaced signed and dated WALTHER FIRLE 1897

oil on canvas

55 3/4 x 41 1/16 inches          (141.6 x 104.1 cm.)


Private Collection, New Jersey, 1987 until the present time


“Walther Firle was one of Germany’s most beloved genre painters”[1] and “is represented in almost all of the most significant museums in Germany.”[2] Walther was the son of the Breslau merchant Julius Firle and began his career working in the family firm.[3] Art at this point was still regarded as a disreputable profession. Firle wrote, “In 1879 my resolution to devote myself to the art of painting was still looked upon as a most extraordinary, almost preposterous idea.”[4] He had received his initial training from the landscape painter Adolf Dressler while still in school, and eventually the family relented and allowed him to enter the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Munich at the age of twenty. In Munich he studied with Alois Gabl, Ludwig von Lofftz, Gabriel von Hackl and Gabriel Max. In 1882, short of money, he was forced to leave the school. His first trip to Italy was funded by the proceeds of a painting titled Gabrinus, done for a tavern in Breslau. Next he went to Holland to study the Dutch Old Masters and fell under the spell of Vermeer. Of equal importance in Firle’s development was his exposure to the work of Josef Israëls, whose realistic renderings featured the fishing communities of the North Sea. Upon his return to Munich he began to paint scenes of Holland which were enthusiastically received. In general the 1880s would be a period of ever-growing popularity and success, accompanied by awards won at exhibitions in Antwerp, Berlin, Paris and Vienna as well as museum purchases by Berlin and Budapest.[5] Such works as Morgenandacht in einem Holländischen Waisenhaus (Morning Prayer in a Dutch Orphanage), bought by Berlin’s Nationalgalerie, typify his subject matter at the time.

In the 1890s, the period from which Ein Altes Lied dates, Firle turned his attention to subjects closer to home. With the start of the Munich Secession Movement in 1892, the need for contemporary relevance as well as aesthetic quality was expressed. This was accompanied by an embracing of Impressionism that reached its apex in Germany in the 1890s, twenty years after its start in France. The exploration of light in interior space became an important thematic concern. Shadows now glowed from a contrasting mixture of deep blue, green and purple hues. The substitution of minutely detailed work based on elaborate preparatory drawing for a quick impasto laden brush, gained favor in the attempt to recreate the effects of strong light delineating objects.[6] Quite apparent in Firle’s work of the period; he accompanied such technical innovations with subjects that focused on endearingly portraying the daily experience of the German working and middle classes. A journalist visiting Firle’s studio in 1890 wrote, “We breathe the air of every-day life: simple feeling enwraps us, the common experience of joy and sorrow become part of our lot. The spirit of the people reigns in this apartment.”[7] Such works resonated with the public and were disseminated throughout Germany and beyond by countless printed reproductions that solidified his reputation[8] and status as one of the country’s most popular genre painters.[9]

In Ein Altes Lied the influence of Vermeer is obvious, recalling such works as The Music Lesson (Royal Collection, Buckingham Palace, London) and A Lady Standing at the Virginal (National Gallery, London, inv. no. 1383). Also as with Vermeer, the exploration of the effects of bright light from windows seen and unseen are a constant in the work of Firle. In the left foreground the pictorial barrier of the scene is broken down by the thrust of the jutting cane-bottomed chair on which sheets of music have been carelessly tossed. A simple interior of bare floorboards, plaster walls and paned windows with the lower portion lined by sheer curtains to diffuse the light that otherwise floods the room, comprises the interior. A harmony of browns, beiges and blacks; colorful accents are provided by a vivid red blooming potted plant and a caged canary. Through the windows the upper floors of an urban courtyard are discernable. Inside an aged piano teacher listens to a young student. The image of the piano teacher must have captivated Firle as she repeatedly appears in numerous works, her position altered only by the direction of her chair. The window treatment is another constant sometimes widened or contracted with the variant of added or subtracted flowering plants. The teacher’s resigned gesture relay the years of patient endurance needed for the training of the novices entrusted to her for instruction. In stark contrast are the tentative pose, gesture and expression of her pupil. The glass of the upright mahogany piano reflects autumnal trees and a blue sky. Striped of artifice, the projected feelings of resignation and trepidation strike a universal chord.

Works by Walther Firle formed part of the permanent collections of the museums of Berlin, Bournemouth, Bremen, Breslau, Budapest, Cologne, Düsseldorf, Frankfurt, Hannover, Leipzig, Munich, Oslo and Seattle.



[1] Laurence Libin, “Square Piano by Adam Beyer” in The Galpin Society Journal, volume 46, March 1993, p. 152.

[2] Thieme-Becker, “Walther-Firle” in Allgemeines Lexikon der Bildenden Künstler, volume XII, Veb E.A. Seeman Verlag, Leipzig, 1916, p. 8.

[3] “Paintings of the Day – Walther Firle” in The Illustrated American, volume 13, New York & Chicago, January 28, 1893, p. 114.

[4] Rudolf and Margot Wittkower, Born Under Saturn, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1963, p. 12.

[5] Biographical information taken from The Illustrated American, op. cit., p. 114; Thieme-Becker, op. cit., p. 8; E. Benezit “Walter Firle” in Dictionnaire des Peintures, Sculpteurs, Dessinateurs et Graveurs, volume 4, Librairie Gründ, Paris, 1976, p. 377; Horst Ludwig, “Walther Firle” in Münchner Maler in 19. Jahrhundert, volume 1, Bruckmann München, 1981, pp. 341, 345; and Laurence Libin, op. cit., p. 152.

[6] Horst G. Ludwig, “Stylistic Diversity within the Munich Secession” in Secession 1892-1914: The Munich Secession 1892-1914; and Bettina Best, “The Secession Movement in Munich, Berlin and Vienna” in Secession 1892-1914, op. cit., p. 269.

[7] “Painters’ Studios: Walter Firle” in The Art Journal, J.S. Virtue & Co. Limited, London, 1870, pp. 42-43.

[8] Laurence Libin, op. cit., p. 46.

[9] Thieme-Becker, op. cit., p. 8.

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