On Strike
, oil on canvas, 1891
© Royal Academy of Arts, London The Etcher
, etching, 1891 from Hubert Herkomer RA, Etching and Mezzotint Engraving
, London 1892
© Royal Academy of Arts, London Portrait of Briton Rivière
, oil on canvas, 1887
© Royal Academy of Arts, London Portrait of Robert Walker Macbeth
, watercolour, October 1892
© Royal Academy of Arts, London
Herkomer was born at Waal in Bavaria, the son of a woodcarver who brought his family to live in Southampton in 1857. Herkomer studied at Southampton Art School and then in 1866 entered South Kensington School of art. Soon after this he started providing illustrations for The Graphic
, a magazine which published some of the strongest social realist images of the late 19th century. He worked up some of these images into finished oil paintings such as The Last Muster
(Lady Lever Art Gallery) which proved immensely popular.
As well as subject pictures and landscapes Herkomer painted many portraits of friends and important people of his day such as John Ruskin and the composer Richard Wagner. Herkomer was also an accomplished musician and composing music, including a few operas, as well as acting and designing stage scenery for his own theatre. He built an impressive castellated mansion in Bushey, Hertfordshire, called Lululand after his second wife, Lulu Griffiths. Always critical of his own art education Herkomer opened his own school of art at Bushy in 1883, and described his school in great detail in his book, My School and My Gospel
, 1908. He was ennobled by the Emperor of Germany in 1899 after which he used the prefix 'von' in his name and was knighted in 1907.
Herkomer's earlier work exploring some of the harsher aspects of contemporary life was revisited in the work given to the Royal Academy on his election as an Academician in 1890. On Strike 
is painted on a large scale and succeeds in engendering sympathy for the families of striking workers while monumentalizing the dignity of the latter's determined struggle against exploitation. This was a relevant contemporary subject as during the 1880s and 1890s labour unrest increased dramatically. Even The Times
in its review of the painting in the Summer Exhibition felt that 'nobody will deny that in these days of labour disputes and acute social questions such a subject is appropriate to art; and in his figure of the gaunt, doged and surly labourer, of his unhappy wife and half-famished children, Mr. Herkomer has given us a summary of one side, and a very important side, of modern civilization.' [The Times
, 11 May 1891, p.8]
Herkomer had always been interested in various print media and in 1892 published Etching and mezzotint Engraving
which was based on a series of lecture-demonstrations he gave at Oxford during his tenure as Slade Professor of Art. The frontispiece 
appears to show the artist himself endeavoring to create an etching from the images in his imagination.
From 1881 the more lucrative field of portraiture took up an increasing amount of Herkomer's output. His ability to paint large-scale formal portraits in a short space of time brought him considerable success and financial rewards. Briton Riviere RA (1840-1920) 
was primarily an animal painter, although, unlike Edwin Landseer, he did not usually give his animals quasi-human characteristics and instead many of his pictures showed great sympathy between man and beast were immensely popular. In this portrait Herkomer uses a subtle tonal range and a plain background to focus on obtaining the essential character of his sitter.
However, his commissioned works bear little resemblance to his smaller and more intimate portraits of friends, such as this lively watercolour made as a gift for his fellow artist Robert Walker Macbeth (1848-1910) 
. Herkomer had met the Scottish landscape painter and printmaker Macbeth in London where both began their careers producing illustrations for the new journal The Graphic
can be seen in the exhibition Illusions of Reality
at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam until 16 January 2011.