Lesser Ury (1861-1931) is renowned as one of the leading modern artists in early 20th century Germany. His life and work is particularly associated with the city of Berlin.
Ury was born into a Jewish family in the state of Prussia in 1861. His father (who had worked as a baker) died during Lesser’s childhood, and his mother moved with her children to Berlin after finding employment in a linen shop. Despite this humble background, Lesser Ury was able to attend the art academy in Düsseldorf. Ury continued his art training in other European cities, including Paris, Brussels, Stuttgart, and Munich. He returned to Berlin in 1887 and stayed there the rest of his life. With the support of fellow Berlin artists Adoph von Menzel and Max Liebermann, Ury began to exhibit his work in 1889. He soon received an award from the academy in Berlin.
Lesser Ury was one of the first artists in Germany to depict modern city life. His favored subjects were diverse: rainy street scenes, bustling cafes, theaters, horse-drawn carriages, automobiles, women sewing, and floral still-lifes. Ury used postcards and photographs (in particular, views sent to him from Paris) to help him more closely study small details of the urban landscape. Though Ury strove toward realism, he enjoyed punctuating his work with bright dashes of color. Pastels were a favored medium, because Ury believed pastels allowed for careful control of light and color.
Ury also painted landscapes, including a series of pastoral scenes from the Dutch countryside and Italy. The art critic Oskar Bie was one of his early (and few) public admirers, declaring that Ury’s landscape paintings were Gebete einer farbentrunkenen Seele, or “prayers for a color intoxicated soul.” And proud of his Jewish background, Ury created quite a few pieces with Old Testament subjects.
For unknown reasons, Lesser Ury’s friendship with Max Liebermann turned bitter over time. The highly esteemed Liebermann (who was then president of the Berlin Secession art group) would not allow Ury to join or exhibit with the Secessionists. This restriction from joining one of the main art groups in the city hampered Ury’s relations with other artists and potential patrons. In addition, Ury developed a reputation in the Berlin cultural scene as being difficult and antagonistic. Though his output of work was significant, Ury struggled to sell his art or to find commissions, and he and his wife lived on the brink of poverty.
After Max Liebermann resigned from his post as president of the Berlin Secession, Lovis Corinth was elected president in 1911, Lesser Ury was finally allowed to join the group. Ury received some modest recognition after that point, exhibiting with the Secessionists in 1915 and 1922, and at the Paul Cassier gallery in 1916. The mayor of Berlin declared Ury as the “artistic glorifier of the capital" on the artist's sixtieth birthday in 1921, referring to his vivid depictions of city scenes. There was to be a commemorative exhibit of Lesser Ury’s work in the Berlin National Gallery in 1931, but he died in his studio a few weeks before the exhibit’s opening. Though nearly penniless when he died, Ury was buried in the honorary section of the Jewish cemetery at Weißensee. Much of Ury’s art was destroyed subsequently during the Third Reich, and his legacy was almost forgotten for many decades. Now Ury’s art can be found in prominent international museums and auction houses.
The Leo Baeck Institute has a rich selection of Lesser Ury's work in its art collection, including two unique self portraits and several prints showing scenes of Berlin and idyllic landscapes. The Leo Baeck Institute library also has several artist's books featuring prints and reproductions of Ury's work.