German painter Lovis Corinth fell in love with his 21-year-old art student, to her family’s disapproval. He painted her portrait the year after they met, and included a secret love message along the back of her chair.
After eleven years of training in Munich, Königsberg, and Paris, in 1901 Lovis Corinth settled in Berlin, where he became a leader of the Berlin Secession group and opened a private painting school. Charlotte Berend, from a Jewish merchant family, was one of his first pupils. She was 21 and had already studied at the Royal School of Art in Berlin and the Berliner Kunstgewerbemuseum (Museum of Decorative Arts). 1
Berend recalled, “The teacher soon showed a conspicuous attentiveness to me, praised me, and told me I was making good progress in the fine art of drawing, but I could feel that a personal interest was becoming ever more apparent. This reached its culmination at the end of the semester in June with his question: ‘Miss Berend, I would like to paint your portrait. What do you think of the idea?’ That is how the first portrait of me – Portrait of Charlotte Berend in a White Dress – came about. He gave it to me and signed it, ‘The teacher, for Miss Charlotte Berend.”2
Portrait of Charlotte Berend in a White Dress (1902), by Lovis Corinth
Lovis Corinth and Charlotte Berend, Munich, 1902
That September, in what must have a been a bold and even scandalous expedition, the 44-year-old Corinth took his young pupil on a beach holiday to a town called Niechorze (“Horst” in German) in Poland, on the Baltic Sea.
In her 1958 memoirs, My Life with Lovis Corinth, Berend wrote, “During the holidays in Horst Corinth finally painted the portrait ‘Petermännchen in the Red Chair’. I sat, it was in his room, chatting or silent, to give him the opportunity to grasp the physiognomy in all its possibilities. In this picture he held my view of devoted love, of which I knew nothing, firmly; his love for me manifested itself in the tenderness of the presentation, especially of my hand.”3
Petermännchen / Portrait of Charlotte Berend (1902) by Lovis Corinth
Berend’s exposed shoulder, loosened hair, and tender gaze give the portrait a relaxed intimacy.
Corinth signed his work – “Lovis Corinth 2 September 1902” – clearly below the window, but hidden in this painting is another inscription. Corinth apparently sketched his nickname for Berend – “m(ein) l(iebes) Petermännchen” (my dear Petermännchen) – on the back of the red chair.
(Petermännchen is a household imp – similar to a mischievous poltergeist. According to German folklore, he lives at the Schwerin Palace, in the city of Schwerin.)
I have been unable to find an image of Petermännchen / Portrait of Charlotte Berend that includes this barely visible message. If you have one, or can take a photo in Berlin, please send it along and I’ll include it here.
Corinth also painted Berend wading in the surf during this holiday.
Paddle Petermännchen (1902) by Lovis Corinth
The couple married in March 1903, and remained together until Corinth’s death in 1925. Corinth painted more than 80 portraits of his wife. Berend-Corinth, who died in 1967, also worked as an artist throughout her life.
She kept Petermännchen / Portrait of Charlotte Berend until her death in 1967; the couple’s daughter then owned it until she died in 2001.
Self-portrait (1921) by Charlotte Berend-Corinth
Artist: Lovis Corinth (1858-1925)
Corinth was an influential figure in the history of German painting, renowned for his masterful draftsmanship and confident brushwork. Throughout his prolific career he used lush, vivid pigment to explore and combine elements of academic realism, German Impressionism, and Expressionism. After a stroke in 1911 limited his control of his left hand, his style become even more energetic and expressionistic. Artists influenced by Corinth include George Baselitz, Max Beckmann, and Anselm Kiefer.
Medium & Support: Oil on canvas
Size: 119 x 95 cm (46.8” x 37.4”)
Location: Jewish Museum Berlin
“A Painting with a Secret Message: Lovis Corinth’s Portrait of Charlotte Berend,” Jewish Museum Berlin website.
“German Expressionism: Works from the Collection – Lovis Corinth,” Museum of Modern Art New York website.
Other Information / Sources:
Agnes Husslein-Arco & Stephan Koja, eds.: Lovis Corinth – A Feast of Painting, Prestel, Munich etc., 2009.
Charlotte Berend-Corinth : My Life with Lovis Corinth. Paul List Verlag, Munich 1958.