Biography of German Expressionist Painter, Die Brucke.

Pin it


Schmidt-Rottluff (1884-1976)


Early Life
Die Brucke Artist Group
Landscape Art
Move to Berlin
World War I
1930s: Degenerate Artist

Important Art Works

Self-Portrait with a Monocle (1910)
Staatliche Museen Berlin. This self
portrait is one of Schmidt-Rotluff's
best 20th century paintings.

Portrait of Emy (1919)
North Carolina Museum of Art.
One of several highly colourful
expressionist portraits by

Woman with a Bag (1915)
Tate Collection, London.


A leading figure in 20th century German Expressionism, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff was a founding member of the Die Brucke artist group (active 1905-13), whose other members included Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Erich Heckel. Noted for his forceful expressionism - exemplified by a bold use of colour in his landscape painting as well as his portrait art - his most significant contribution is probably his woodcuts, which are among the most powerful examples of Expressionist printmaking. He was also one of the best landscape artists in the Die Brucke group. Persecuted after 1933 by the Nazi authorities in Germany, he was eventually banned from painting and printmaking. Now regarded as an important contributor to expressionism, he is ranked alongside the most famous 20th century painters in his field. For more about Schmidt-Rottluff's contribution to expressionism, see: History of Expressionist Painting.

Paintings by Schmidt-Rotluff
are also widely available online
in the form of poster art.

For top creative practitioners, see:
Best Artists of All Time.
For the greatest still life art, see:
Best Still Life Painters.
For the greatest portraitists
see: Best Portrait Artists.

Early Life

Karl Schmidt was born in Rottluff in Saxony. It is not clear exactly how and when he learned drawing, or the fundamentals of printmaking, but after finishing secondary school in nearby Chemnitz, he - like Franz Marc, another leading expressionist painter - first chose to study theology but then followed the example of his close friend Erich Heckel (1883-1970) and went to study architecture in Dresden. It was here that he appended the name of his home town to his surname, and also where he and Heckel discovered their common love for painting as well as for poetry, and began to paint and draw together, along with two other architectural students - Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938) and Fritz Bleyl (1880-1966).

Die Brucke Artist Group

The four students formed an art group known as Die Brucke (its full name was Die Kunstlergruppe Brucke), known in English as "the Bridge". Although the older Kirchner was the dominant figure, Schmidt-Rottluff suggested the name. As a fervent admirer of Nietzsche he had been stimulated by the fourth prologue of Zarathustra - "what is noble in man is that he is a bridge and not a goal; what can be loved in a man is that he is a crossing over and a going under". The name also symbolized the group's desire to bridge the gap between the prevailing academic style of German neo-romanticism and that of the emerging modernism, with a new style of art. Members of Die Brucke worked in relatively close association with each other, and - like their contemporaries in the Fauvism group in Paris - were famous for their vigorous, sometimes harsh use of colour in painting. Unlike the French Fauves, however, Die Brucke artists were less trained and exuded a primitive restlessness. They also attached greater important to printmaking, notably woodcuts.

Schmidt-Rottluff persuaded Emil Nolde (1867-1956), whom he had visited in Alsen in 1906, to join Die Brucke, and also corresponded with Edvard Munch (1863-1944) about joining the group. It was also he who introduced lithography into the group. Other important artists who joined the group included Max Pechstein (1881-1955), Otto Mueller (1874-1930), and Kees van Dongen (1877-1968).



Landscape Art

Nonetheless, amid all this activity on behalf of the group, Schmidt-Rottluff always held himself a little aloof. He visited and shared studios less frequently and also did not take part in the work trips to the Moritzburg lakes near Dresden. Instead, he went to Dangast in Oldenburg during the summer months from 1907 to 1912; Heckel followed him there. Schmidt-Rottluff was the only one of the friends to exhibit in Braunschweig in 1907, and in one-man exhibitions in Hamburg in 1910. The group disbanded in 1913, yet its reinvigoration of German painting was to prove highly influential for decades. Schmidt-Rottluff's temperament was reserved and introverted. Moreover, he was less interested than the others in depicting scenes of city life. As a result he spent most of his time painting landscapes and, until 1912, he only occasionally used the human figures which held the attention of his friends so much. Inspired by summer visits to the Baltic coast, his early landscape painting and bathing scenes featured the use of bright, dense colour pigments and thick, impulsive brushwork. Works such as The Busting Dam (1910) and Houses at Night (1912), are typical of his work, featuring blocks of bright, contrasting, acid colours, rapid brushwork and simplified forms. "The harsh air of the North Sea yielded, particularly in Schmidt-Rottluff, a monumental Impressionism" Kirchner wrote in 1913 in the Die Brucke chronicle. Thus he described that vigorous brushwork; expressive of great force of will with which Schmidt-Rottluff produced unity in his paintings. In general, his style was harsher that other members of the group - it was particularly forceful in his woodcuts, which are among the finest examples of graphic art. Around this time he also painted The Pharisees (1912, Museum of Modern Art, New York) one of his best-known works and one of the best-known religious paintings of the expressionist genre.

Move to Berlin

In 1911 Schmidt-Rottluff moved (as did his friends at the same time) from Dresden to Berlin; where he lived for the rest of his life. The huge city provided a host of new sights, and brought Schmidt into contact with mainstream 20th century abstract art. However, his experiments with abstraction and a form of Cubism remained just that - experiments, limited to a few pictures. Instead in 1913, in Nidden on the Courland penninsula he explored a heraldic-symbolic style, in which human figures and the elements of landscape are reduced to images of equal importance in the picture, promoting a sort of symbolic unity. In 1914 he again changed his surroundings and went to Hohwacht on the Baltic coast of Holstein. The expressionist paintings that he produced here could not maintain the harmony between man and nature. For the first time the figures show a spiritual oppression in his work.

World War I

Shortly after the outbreak of war, Schmidt-Rottluff joined the army and in Autumn 1915 he was sent to the Russian front. His painting took on a darker palette, as in Woman with a Bag (1915), and he began a series of religious woodcuts at this time. The distorted, elongated faces in his works - including his sculpture Male Head (1917) - reflected his passion for primitive art, an interest inspired by the African art (especially West African masks) he had observed at Dresden's Ethnographic Museum. The war left no trace on his work as regards themes - which always focused on universal rather than topical issues - nevertheless the shock could not be hidden. As he himself wrote, he felt more and more clearly the "tension between this world and the next".

1930s: Degenerate Artist

In the 1930s, with the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany, Schmidt-Rottluff became one of the artists whose works were labelled "degenerate art" (entartete kunst). As well as Schmidt and all former members of Die Brucke, other banned artists included members of the Der Blaue Reiter expressionist group, such as the abstract painter Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), the Russian Alexei von Jawlensky (1864-1941), the colourist Franz Marc (1880-1916) and the Swiss painter Paul Klee (1879-1940). Leaders of the 1920s expressionist group called Die Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) like Otto Dix (1891-1969) and George Grosz (1893-1959) were also labelled "degenerate", as were others like the Austrian painters Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980) and Egon Schiele (1890-1918). As it was, Schmidt-Rottluff was subjected to special persecution: his work was not just destroyed and labeled degenerate, but in 1941 he was forbidden to paint and was placed under the supervision of the notorious SS.

Happily, after the end of World War II, his career was revived and he was appointed professor at the School of Fine Arts in Berlin in 1947. His later style of painting is softer, more fluid but still includes intense colour. He remained active until his death, aged 91. Schmidt-Rottluff is now regarded as one of the most powerful painters of the expressionist movement in prewar Germany.


Works by Schmidt-Rottluff can be seen in many of the best art museums throughout the world, with the largest holdings of his graphic art in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and the New Walk Museum and Art Gallery in Leceister. Among his more important works are the following:

- Flowering Trees (1909) Private Collection
- The Busting Dam (1910) Brucke Museum, Berlin.
- Red Tower in the Park (1910) Stadel Museum, Frankfurt.
- Pharisees (1912) Museum of Modern Art, New York.
- Houses at Night (1912) Museum of Modern Art, New York.
- Summer (1913) Sprengel Museum, Hannover.
- Melancholie (1914) Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
- Portrait of Lyonel Feininger (1915) Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg.
- Woman with a Bag (1915) Tate Collection, London.
- Male Head (1917) (sculpture) Tate Collection, London.
- Portrait of Emy (1919) North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh.
- Dr Rosa Schapire (1919) Tate Collection, London.

• For more details of 20th century German Expressionism, see: Homepage.

© All rights reserved.