Max Klinger
Biography of German Symbolist Painter, Death of Caesar.

Pin it

The Death of Caesar (c.1890)
Museum of Fine Arts, Leipzig.
Academic-style realist painting
at its best, by Max Klinger.

Max Klinger (1857-1920)


Training and Early Drawings
Allegorical and Historical Paintings
Reputation and Legacy

The Judgment of Paris (1885) - detail.
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

For top creative practitioners, see:
Best Artists of All Time.
For the top allegorical painting,
see: Best History Painters.


A hugely innovative figure in 19th century German art, Max Klinger was active in painting and printmaking, and was closely associated with the Symbolism movement. He first studied in Karlsruhe with the genre painter, Gussow, and in Berlin under the influential symbolist Arnold Bocklin (1827-1901). His highly controversial drawing and engraving, to which he gave a very innovative treatment, stand out in particular among his work. He also produced a number of exceptionally modern paintings, marked by great originality, even daring. Critics might argue that some of his art was sensationalist - even grotesque - due to its morbid fantasies and eroticism. This, along with his direct, even brutal, realism, provoked such criticism that he was forced to spend long periods abroad. He returned in 1893 and from that time onward, devoted himself to philosophical subjects, which make up his most interesting work. He was also a master of history painting, a genre in which he was influenced by Adolph von Menzel (1815-1905), producing The Death of Caesar (c.1890, Museum of Fine Arts, Leipzig), arguably the greatest painting in the history of German Symbolism, and the huge Judgment of Paris (1885, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna). In addition, he produced religious paintings that showed a renaissance influence. He is considered the most individualist and influential exponent of modern art in Germany, a forerunner of several modern art movements, both because of his subject matter, in the case of Surrealism, and because of his aesthetics, as in The Blue Hour (1890, Museum of Fine Arts, Leipzig), a very advanced painting for its time. Other important works include: Pieta (pre-1894), Christ on Olympus (1897) and Crucifixion (1890, Museum of Fine Arts, Leipzig). His art influenced a wide range of 20th century painters, notably the surrealist artists Giorgio de Chirico, Salvador Dali, and Max Ernst.



Training and Early Drawings

Born in Leipzig, Klinger trained first at the Grand Ducal Baden Art School in Karlsruhe, after which, in 1875, he entered the Royal Academy of Art in Berlin under Karl Gussow. On graduation, his artistic ability was assessed as "exceptional" and he received a silver medal. In 1878, Klinger created a sensation when he exhibited for the first time at the 52nd Academy Exhibition in Berlin. He showed a series of ten pen-and-ink drawings (engraved in 1881), entitled: Fantasies Upon the Finding of a Glove. This controversial exploration of erotic fetishism, in which a hapless artist becomes obsessed with a woman's glove, came to Klinger in a dream after chancing upon a glove at an ice-skating rink. The work anticipates the psychoanalytical theories of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) on neurotic behaviour by two decades, and remains the foundation for Klinger's modern reputation. Amazingly, the ten drawings were purchased from him by the Berlin National Gallery. The following year he went to Brussels where he became a pupil of Emile Charles Wauters', and in 1880 he painted the Eve and the Future (Opus III) cycle.

In 1883, the year after he opened a studio in Berlin, and joined the Berlin Artists' Association, Klinger obtained his first major commission: a series of mural paintings for the villa of Julius Albers, a lawyer at the city's Superior Court of Justice. That same year he established a studio in Paris, where he spent time studying paintings by Goya and Daumier in the Louvre. In the event, he was drawn more to the work of the muralist Puvis de Chavannes (1824-98).

Allegorical and Historical Paintings

For much of the period 1883-1893 Klinger was based in Rome, where he became increasingly influenced by Italian Renaissance art and antique forms, although he also travelled extensively around Europe before returning to Leipzig in 1893.

During this time he began painting allegorical and historical works marked by complex symbolism, such as The Judgment of Paris (1885, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna), Die blaue Stunde (The Blue Hour) (1890, Museum of Fine Arts, Leipzig), and The Death of Caesar (c.1890) MFA, Leipzig). Both of these modernist works proved controversial, although The Judgment of Paris was met with a storm of protest due to its rejection of academic conventions and its powerful nudity. In fact Klinger sought neither beauty nor truth in his painting, but instead a sort of 'impressive grimness' overlaid with mysticism. Whatever his artistic aims, his works make those of his contemporaries - including Franz von Lenbach (1836-1904), Wilhelm Leibl (1844-1900), Max Liebermann (1847-1935), Lovis Corinth (1858-1925) and Max Slevogt (1868-1932) - look decidedly old-fashioned.




Klinger's fascination with morbid subjects found a further outlet in his cycles of etchings, modelled on works by the great Spanish printmaker Goya (1746-1828). According to his theoretical essay "Painting and Drawing" (Malerei und Zeichnung), published in 1891, his prints are designed to express the "dark side of life". Highly expressive rather than technically perfect, they include works like Fantasy on Brahms, Eve and the Future, Deliverances of Sacrificial Victims Told in Ovid, A Life and Of Death.

These prints, combined with his history paintings, extended his reputation as one of Germany's leading modern artists of the late nineteenth century. Collected by the National Gallery in Berlin, the Gemaldegalerie Alte Meister Dresden, and the Kunsthalle, Hamburg, he was appointed Professor at the Royal Academy of Graphic Arts in Leipzig. During the mid/late 1890s, he was associated with the progressive secessionist movements, including the Munich Secession (1892), the Vienna Secession (1897) and the Berlin Secession (1898) movement.


From 1897 he focused mainly on sculpture, a medium he explored through the use of a wide range of materials and colour. His polychrome nudes and other stone sculpture, carved from multi-coloured materials in a style reminiscent of Greek chryselephantine sculpture, were quite unlike anything else being produced by his contemporaries. His marble statue of Ludwig van Beethoven, for instance, became a central (albeit controversial) feature of the Vienna Secession exhibit of 1902.

For his efforts, Klinger received a number of awards and honours. He was made a Knight of the Pour le Merite order, elected a full member of the Munich Academy and an honorary member of the Stockholm Academy. He died near Naumburg, Germany, in July 1920, at the comparatively young age of 63.

Reputation and Legacy

A unique, prolific, and incredibly versatile artist, Klinger is chiefly revered for his modernist style of painting, his dreamlike graphic art - largely a blend of Jugendstil and Symbolism - as well as his highly visual sculpture, exemplified by his "Beethoven" monument. Although cited by several symbolists as a key inspiration for their art - an example is Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978), the inventor of Metaphysical Painting: see for example The Mystery and Melancholy of a Street (1914, Private Collection) - Klinger's influence on Surrealism and Art Nouveau, has yet to receive the attention it deserves. He certainly had a deep influence on Salvador Dali (1904-89) and Max Ernst (1891-1976). In addition, motifs from Klinger's art can be glimpsed in paintings and graphic works by major artists like Edvard Munch (1863-1944), Kathe Kollwitz (1867-1945), Alfred Kubin (1877-1959), Paul Klee (1879-1940), Max Beckmann (1884-1950), among several others.

In March-June 2007, a major exhibition curated by Richard Huttel opened at the Museum der bildenden Kunste Leipzig, on the artistic legacy of Max Klinger. Later in the same year it travelled to the Hamburger Kunsthalle, where it was jointly curated by Huttel and Petra Roettig. The show featured over 200 artworks, including 60 paintings and 12 sculptures as well as numerous prints, drawings and sketches.

Symbolist prints and paintings by Max Klinger can be seen in the collections of several of the best art museums around the world.

For more 19th century symbolist painters, see: Gustave Moreau (1826-1898), Odilon Redon (1840-1916), Ferdinand Hodler (1853-1918), and James Ensor (1860-1949).

• For biographies of other 19th century German Symbolist artists, see: Famous Painters.
• For more details of Symbolism in Germany, see: Homepage.

© All rights reserved.