Emil Nolde
Biography of German Expressionist Painter, Printmaker.

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Emil Nolde (1867-1956)


Early Career
Die Brucke German Expressionist Group
Liebermann and Berlin Sezession
The Prophet (Woodcut)
Degenerate Art

Best Known Art Works

The Prophet (1912) Woodcut.
Museum of Modern Art, New York.
One of the most striking and iconic
images in the history of printmaking.

Red Poppies (1920)
Private Collection. A superb example
of Nolde's watercolour painting.

Young Men from Papua (1913-14)
Staatliche Musem, Berlin.

For more expressionist works like,
those produced by Emil Nolde, see:
Greatest 20th-Century Paintings.


Ranked among the top modern artists, the German-Danish painter and print maker, Emil Nolde was one of the most powerful exponents of Expressionism. Although he was a member of the Die Brucke group of expressionist painters, he remained a relatively isolated figure, due to his temperament and circumstances - his wife became a semi-invalid. His unique contribution to 20th century German Expressionism lies in the intense emotion of his radically simplified - sometimes grotesquely distorted - drawings, and vivid colours. At the same time he was one of the greatest watercolourist painters of flowers. An important contributor to modern art, his most famous expressionist paintings include Young Men From Papua (1913-14, Staatliche Museen, Berlin), Red Poppies (1920, Private Collection), The Last Supper (1909, State Museum, Copenhagen), and Sea and Light Clouds (1935, Private Collection). while his most celebrated woodcut is undoubtedly The Prophet (Woodcut, 1912, Museum of Modern Art, New York).

German expressionists include:
Alexei von Jawlensky (1864-1941)
August Macke (1887-1914)
George Grosz (1893-1959)

For top creative practitioners, see:
Best Artists of All Time.
For the greatest still life art, see:
Best Still Life Painters.
For the greatest genre-painting, see:
Best Genre Painters.

For an explanation of the
aesthetic issues involved, see:
Art Definition, Meaning.

Early Career

Born Emil Hansen in 1867 in Nolde, Schleswig-Holstein, Germany, Emil later took the name of his birth town as his family name. He was raised on a farm with peasant parents. Nolde initially trained in wood carving as a cabinet-maker, and worked in a furniture factory. In 1889 he gained entrance to the School of Applied Arts in Karlsruhe, before teaching craft, design and drawing in St Gall, Switzerland. He was then rejected as a student by the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich in 1898, and instead studied painting privately under Adolf Holzel, a German artist and art historian. In 1899-1900 he also studied at the Academie Julian in Paris, where he came across Impressionism, and Post-Impressionism. It was only around 1900, when he was in his early 30s that Nolde decided to become a full time artist, and he would be 40 before he achieved any serious recognition. His first paintings from this period show fantasy elements although they are largely naturalistic landscapes. In 1901-2 he worked in Berlin, and after this divided his time between Berlin and Schleswig. In 1902 he met the collector Gustav Schiefler and the expressionist painter Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, both of whom would become important advocates of his art in later years.


Die Brucke German Expressionist Group

In 1906 Nolde joined the Berlin Sezession, an art association founded in 1898 by Berlin artists in opposition to the conservative state run Association of Berlin Artists. Other notable members of the group included Max Beckmann, Hermann Struck, Max Slevogt, Georg Kolbe, and Lovis Corinth; and sculptors August Gaul and Ernst Barlach. In 1906 Nolde joined the Die Brucke group, an association of German Expressionists formed in Dresden in 1905. Other important members included Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938), Fritz Bleyl (1880-1966), Karl Schmidt-Rottluff (1884-1976), Max Pechstein (1881-1955), Erich Heckel (1883-1970) and Otto Mueller (1874-1930). The group, often compared to Fauvism, had a major impact on modern art while both movements shared an interest in Primitivism/Primitive Art and in expressing extreme emotion through the use of pure colour which was often non-naturalistic. But Die Brucke artists often painted city streets and physically charged scenes, which make the Fauves seem quite tame in comparison.

Nolde's etching and drawing revealed his instinct for fantasy and the macabre, and his paintings at this period were almost an emotionally heightened form of Impressionism. His powerful colour and brushstroke influenced his Brucke friends; in return, they interested him in their woodcuts and lithography techniques. In 1906 Nolde had his first one man show. Unfortunately during the next couple of years he fell out with his several of his fellow-artists and left the Die Brucke group. But his reputation within the expressionist movement was growing.

Liebermann and Berlin Sezession

In 1909 Nolde produced the first of a series of religious paintings including The Last Supper (Copenhagen, Statens Museum) and the triptych Life of St. Mary Aegyptiaca (1912). His other painting Pentecost (1909, Bern) was refused exhibition by Max Liebermann, president of the Berlin Sezession in 1910. Nolde published an attack on Liebermann and was made to resign from the organisation. Some felt his remarks were nationalist and anti-semitic in nature. Although Nolde made several attempts to donate his religious paintings to a church, none were ever permanently installed. The event however clarified his aims: he would create a North German Art, void of debilitating influences but close to people and deriving guidance from the Dutch painter Rembrandt. In 1910, he founded the New Secession which became a rallying point for the German avant-garde. In 1912 he was exhibiting with Wassily Kandinsky's Der Blaue Reiter Group, and in 1913, he joined an expedition to New Guinea to study the art and life of the aborigines, an experience which served as a source of primitive and oriental motifs in his paintings, such as South Sea Islander (1914). He wrote 'Everything which is primeval and elemental captures my imagination'.

The Prophet (Woodcut)

The Museum of Modern Art in New York houses Nolde's famous woodcut The Prophet (1912). The Prophet's face is hollow, his eyes sunken, his solemn countenance expresses deep emotion. Three years before Nolde executed this print, he experienced a religious transformation while recovering from an illness. It was after this period that he began depicting religious paintings and prints. During the 1890s artists like Paul Gauguin and Edvard Munch were working with dramatic woodcuts, and Nolde was influenced by their work. Wood provided Nolde an excellent medium to create Expressionist prints, he enjoyed the textured grain of the wood. The power of Der Prophet, only comes out in impressions printed on Japanese paper, a paper which is extremely rare.

Degenerate Art

In 1931 Nolde was appointed to the Prussian Academy of Art, but in 1937 he was branded a 'degenerate' by the Nazi party and over 1,000 of his works were removed from German art museums and galleries. Other artworks were seized; including those by Marc Chagall, Ernst Barlach, Alexander Archipenko, Erich Heckel, Henri Matisse, James Ensor, Pablo Picasso and Vincent van Gogh. In 1937 some of Nolde's paintings, despite his protestations, were included in the Degenerate Art Exhibition the same year. In 1941 he was formerly forbidden to paint. He created some small watercolours during this time; he called them 'Unpainted Pictures' (Ungemalte Bilder) which have been praised in a number of retrospective exhibitions.

After the war, Nolde was once again returned to favour and was honoured with the German Order of Merit. His main subjects were now landscapes, portraits and flower pieces. He also created figures, heads and masks that seem grotesque, but which he found humorous. In 1947 significant exhibitions of his works were held in Lubeck and Kiel. He continued to work with huge energy, producing oils based on watercolours he had created during the war. Nolde died in 1956, at the age of 88. He established the Ada and Emil Nolde Foundation in Seebüll, before his death, which holds his archives and a large collection of his work.

For more about the contribution of Emile Nolde to the evolution of European expressionism, see: History of Expressionist Painting (c.1880-1930).

Selected Paintings

Famous works of art by Emil Nolde include the following:

- Wheat Field (1900, private collection)
- Lesende Junge Frau (1906, Kunsthalle Kiel)
- Blumengarten (1908, Private Collection)
- Anna Wieds Garten (1907, Private Collection)
- Pentecost (1909, Staatliche Museen, Berlin)
- The Last Supper (1909, Copenhagen, Statens Museum)
- The Dance Round the Golden Calf (1910, Gallery of Modern Art, Munich)
- The Prophet (1912, woodcut, Museum of Modern Art, New York)
- Portrait of a Young Girl (1913-14, Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg)
- Tropical Sun (1914, Ada and Emil Nolde Foundation)
- Still Life With Dancers (1914, Musee National d'Art Moderne, Paris)
- Young Black Horses (1916, Museum am Ostwall, Dortmund)
- Red Poppies (1920, Leonard Hutton Galleries, New York)
- The Dancers (1920, Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart)
- Orchids (1925, private collection)
- Portrait of a Man (c.1926, Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg)
- Steigende Wolken (1927, Karl-Ernst-Osthaus-Museum, Hagen)
- Grosse Sonnenblumen (1928, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)
- The Artist and His Wife (1932, Detroit Institute of Arts)
- Blumen und Wolken (1933, Museum Sprengel, Hanover)
- Sunflowers in the Windstorm (1943, Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio)

Collections of paintings by Emile Nolde can be seen at the Brucke Museum, Berlin-Dahlem, and the Museum Kunst Palast, Dusseldorf, as well as a number of the best art museums across America.

• For more biographies of German Expressionist artists, see: 20th Century Painters.
• For a chronological list of important dates, see: Timeline: History of Art.
• For more information about modern German art, see: Homepage.

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