Emil Nolde (1867-1956)


German painter Hans Emil Hansen (Emil Nolde) was born in 1867 to a family of peasants in a small village in Schleswig-Holstein (today Denmark). His childhood was marked by an austere Protestantism mingled with the legends of northern paganism.

He came to painting late, after training as a wood-work and decoration craftsman (1884-1891) which led him to teach drawing at the École d’Art Industriel in Saint-Gall, Switzerland. There, he made watercolours of the Alps in a burlesque style for postcards that were so successful he decided to become a painter. He left at the turn of the century to train in Munich, and then at the Académie Julien in Paris, where he was struck by the work of Rembrandt and Manet.

On his return, Nolde, who divided his time between the city (Berlin and Copenhagen), and his native countryside on the coast of the North Sea, discovered van Gogh and Gauguin during exhibitions in Berlin and Weimar, a discovery that would have a profound influence on his art. In 1906 in Dresden he exhibited landscape paintings featuring thick and heavily coloured paste. The young artists of Die Brücke enthusiastically invited him to join them, but he soon left the group in 1907, though still maintaining friendships with some of the remaining members.

Having decided to create a new art, Nolde joined the Berlin Secession, which hardly appreciated him. He thus participated in the creation of the New Secession, which he also abandoned in order to preserve his independence.

During this period his art evolved toward a lighter and more diversified style, from which the famous series of paintings on biblical themes was born (The Golden Calf (1910), the triptych of the Legend of Mary the Egyptian (1912), the nine-panel altarpiece on the Life of Christ (1911-1912). In these works we see ecstatic fervour and vibrant sensuality in either dynamic or static compositions employing simplified designs and pure colours applied flatly.

Nolde’s work seems wrought with contradiction – a mystical Christian, he was fascinated by the nocturnal pleasures of the city (as seen by his Candle Dancers, 1912, in which frantic movement expresses both sensuality and spiritual trance). Aside from these urban scenes Nolde concentrated on marine scenes from 1910, a motif he would repeat regularly over time. His tormented series Sea in Autumn features colourful strokes on the verge of abstraction.

Fascinated by the non-European cultures he discovered at the Ethnographic Museum in Berlin, Nolde was part of a mission in late 1913 organised by the Office of the Colonies in Papua New Guinea, which further encouraged him to denounce the misdeeds of white cultural imperialism (The Missionary, 1912, would be followed by works evoking the ‘primitive’ arts throughout the rest of the decade).

Upon his return in 1914 he invented an original style whereby the design confidently comprises bold, rich, contrasting colours (complementary colours such as yellow-blue, orange-purple).

He was henceforth celebrated all over Germany (he refused a professorship at the Academy of Karlsruhe), and he travelled extensively. He also built a house not far from his birth place, in Seebüll in 1926.

He created many works in watercolour from 1929, such as flowers and landscapes, often with figures but also, between 1931 and 1935, Fantasies, a series of large-format freely-painted fantastic subjects from dreams, myths, or tales. Pure products of his imagination and intimate spiritual feelings, for Nolde these works embody a beautiful energy—life far from demonic blackness.

‘Painting from nature and with a bit of technique, everyone can learn to do it more or less well. But “creating from the imagination” is only possible for one who has talent.’

Despite the fact that he joined the Nazi Party in 1934 (with the idea of building a ‘new German art’, and driven by virulent anti-Semitism), and despite Goebbels’ appreciation of his art, Nolde was criticised by Alfred Rosenberg, Hitler’s Commissar for intellectual and ideological education. In August 1941, a total prohibition of his works was announced. He was thus expelled from the Academy of Fine Arts, and many of his works on display in German museums were sold, confiscated, and destroyed during the Degenerate Art campaign.

Nolde took refuge in Seebüll and his works became even more beautiful; he clandestinely painted what he called ‘unpainted paintings’ – more than 1300 small watercolours featuring flowers and landscapes. This resistance would redeem him: in the post-war years he earned honours and international recognition.

Independent and solitary, Emil Nolde always rejected the designation of ‘expressionist painter’. He sought to escape learned culture, viscerally devoting himself to the earth and ancestral mythologies.

His paintings harbour vital and spiritual impulses by which the artist sought to reveal the obscure forces of beings and of nature. The primary vehicle for this mystical trance is the intense vibration of the colour – simultaneously flamboyant yet sombre. Through his magnification of the power of colour, Nolde was one of the artists who reinvented the art of watercolour in the twentieth century.

Nolde’s house in Seebüll was transformed into a museum in 1957. His work is well represented in the major German and European Museums (ex.: Basel and Centre Pompidou).

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