Emil Nolde

7 August 1867, Nolde in Schleswig, Germany

13 April 1956, Sebüll, Germany

Emil Nolde, Self portrait, 1908 © Stiftung Seebüll Ada und Emil Nolde 


The beginnings (1867–1906)

One thing that sets Emil Nolde apart is the fact that he was some 13 years older than the other founding members of the Brücke group. He was born on 7 August 1867 as Hans Emil Hansen in the German-Danish border country not far from Tondern. 1 He was the fourth son of the farmer Niels Hansen and his wife Hanna Christine from the village Nolde. Later special importance was attached to the fact that he originated from rural Northern Schleswig.

Initially, the young Hansen began an apprenticeship as a wood sculptor and draftsman, in Flensburg, worked as a wood carver in furniture factories in Munich and Karlsruhe and attended the State Academy of the Fine Arts in Karlsruhe. From 1890 onwards, he found employment in a Berlin furniture factory, then moved in 1892 to St. Gallen, Switzerland, where he lived for some five years working as a teacher specialized in industrial drawing and modelling at the St. Gallen Museum of Industrial Arts. Reproductions of his grotesque representations of Swiss mountain peaks – his so-called “Mountain Postcards” – proved immensely popular. Events of his early career demonstrate that (as was also the case of Max Pechstein) his efforts to establish a life as a freelance visual artist were fraught with economic hardship. After his time in St. Gallen Nolde tried to gain admission to the Munich Academy of Fine Arts but was turned down. Instead he attended private painting schools in Munich and Dachau, and between autumn 1899 and summer 1900 in Paris. In autumn 1900, he rented a studio in Copenhagen.

Decisive for Nolde’s further career is his friendship with the Danish pastor’s daughter and actress Ada Vilstrup, who more than anyone else believed firmly that hie was destined for artistic greatness and, in addition, acted as his manager until her death in 1946. 2 Not until he married in February 1902 did the artist alter his name from Hansen to Nolde, and the couple moved to Berlin. Indeed, Berlin played an important role in Nolde’s later life: Up until 1941 he spent most of the winter months in the German capital, where Ada and Emil received many guests in their apartment – first in Tauentzienstrasse, and later in Berlin’s Westend. They typically spent the summer months in the north, up until 1916 on the island of Alsen in the Baltic Sea, after which the couple moved to the West coast of Germany, close to the North Sea.

Nolde and the Brücke: Getting established in Berlin (1906–1913)

In February 1906, Nolde was invited to join the Brücke by Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, and he accepted in mid-March. 3 In fact, Nolde’s connection to the Dresden artist was primarily directed towards participating in joint exhibitions. Initially, he had more contact to Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, with the young artist from Saxony spending an entire summer with the Noldes on the island of Alsen, amongst other things. In spring 1907, Ada spent several weeks in a sanatorium in Dresden and also became better acquainted with Erich Heckel. However, the friendship between the young male artists and Ada eventually resulted in the Noldes maintaining a certain distance: In November 1907, Nolde informed the group he was leaving. Amongst other things he was not happy with the interest Schmidt-Rottluff and Heckel showed in Ada. 4 In addition, he also had the impression that the others profited from him and his network much more than he himself did from being a member. Nolde made several attempts to establish his own artist group but failed. He then moved permanently to Berlin.

As for his artistic work during this period Nolde explored new subjects and from 1909 onwards increasingly devoted himself to biblical topics; during this time, he produced the works “Pentecost”, “The Last Supper” and “Derision”. In December 1910, Nolde was expelled from the Berlin Secession, a renowned group of artists that arranged exhibitions and of which he had been a member since 1908. His expulsion was the result of an argument with Max Liebermann. After 1933 Nolde repeatedly cited this conflict to explain his early rebellion against an art scene he claimed to be dominated by Jewish art. From 1911 on, he visited Berlin’s Ethnological Museum and made drawings of objects on display there from all over the world, some of which he included in his still-life paintings. In 1913, the acquisition of two Nolde paintings by the Städtische Museum in Halle/Saale provoked a public debate; the fact that the director Max Sauerlandt succeeded in this venture is amazing given the Imperialist policy pursued by the museum.

Colonial trip to the South Pacific and the First World War (1913–1918)

In autumn 1913, Ada and Emil Nolde accompanied an expedition to what was then the colony of German New Guinea. Once there the small group benefitted from the colonial infrastructure. Nolde was given the role of expedition artist and created numerous watercolour portraits. 5 Owing to an infection at the start of the journey after a stay in hospital Nolde spent the remaining time above all in Kavieng, a coastal town with strong colonial influences and forwent further strenuous trips. In May 1914, earlier than originally planned, the Noldes began their return journey. However, in the Suez Canal they were caught unawares by the outbreak of the First World War. They initially made for the neutral Port Said, and from mid-August travelled via Marseille, Genoa, Milan, Halle an der Saale, Berlin and Hamburg back to their home on the island of Alsen in the Baltic Sea. Over the summer the Noldes moved from Alsen to Germany’s West coast and the farmhouse “Utenwarf”. As a civilian in North Schleswig able to support himself Nolde survived the war years comparatively well. He had not long turned 50 and unlike the other former members of the Brücke was therefore too old for military service. His working day hardly differed from how it had been before the war: He produced hundreds of oil paintings and watercolours in his studio, organized numerous solo shows, and was able to sell a considerable number of his paintings. For example, in June 1916 he sold 50 watercolours produced in German New Guinea to the German Colonial Department (Reichskolonialamt) and used the proceeds to pay for the expensive journey there. In June 1918, Hamburg Kunsthalle acquired two paintings.

Nolde during the Interwar Years (1918–1933)

Like several of his former Brücke colleagues Nolde was also briefly a member of the Working Council for Art in Berlin – a grouping of creatives formed immediately after the war. In 1920, Nolde became a Danish citizen, after the plebiscite in the border country resulted in Nolde’s house now being located in Denmark. In 1926, he bought the nearby terp (raised dwelling mount) “Seebüll”, which was on German ground. It was there that from 1927 he began work on his house and studio constructed according to his own design, a building that today houses the Nolde Foundation with the artist’s house and museum. Though later Nolde would delight in stressing the lack of recognition he received for his work during these years in the 1920s the artist was actually one of the most renowned representatives of new German art, and his works were bought by many public collections. Indeed, to mark his 60th birthday, a large anniversary exhibition was held in Dresden featuring over 200 paintings, while a smaller version of the show later travelled to Hamburg, Kiel, Essen, and Wiesbaden. He was also granted an honorary doctorate by the University of Kiel. In 1931, Nolde published the first volume of his autobiography “Das eigene Leben” (My Own Life), which would be followed by others. He also became involved in the debates on German contemporary art, for example the discussion surrounding the controversial travelling exhibition “Neuere deutsche Kunst” (“New German Art”) in 1932, which was criticized by many artists and critics with liberal leanings as being nationalistic and too biased. Nolde defended the show in a public statement and described German Impressionism as “hermaphroditic art”. 6 In April 1933, he said to Max Sauerlandt: “I would like a clear-cut distinction to be made between Jewish and German art, as is also made between a German-French mélange and pure German art.” 7

The Nazi Period (1933–1945)

Not least of all owing to the previous debates about the “Germanness” in art Nolde aspired to become a suitable artistic representative for the new regime. In order to express his allegiance to the Nazis, in the late summer of 1934 he joined the party. Given his Danish citizenship he initially joined the NSAN, the National Socialist Association of Northern Schleswig. That autumn he published the second volume of his autobiography entitled “Jahre der Kämpfe” (Years of Struggle), in which he describes himself as spearheading the fight against Jewish art and for “new German art” and cites his conflict with the artist Max Liebermann and the Berlin Secession in the winter of 1910-11 as evidence of his pioneering role. Several of Nolde’s acquaintances commented on his public demonstration of anti-Semitism. In a letter to Nolde, art collector Tekla Hess expressed her horror at his remarks: “Having read your book I must say the following: that I was deeply shocked […] by your attitude to us Jews.” 8 Nolde’s denunciation of Max Pechstein as an alleged Jew in 1933 was also much discussed in artist circles. There were ongoing disputes at this time about the role of “Nordic” Expressionism - Nolde’s art in particular – in the Nazi state. When the exhibition “Degenerate Art” opened in Munich in July 1937 Nolde enjoyed pride of place with over 30 of his works on show, but in the course of the campaign over 1,000 of the artist’s works were confiscated. In early 1935 – in other words during the Nazi period - some 450 of these works had already been acquired by the Association of Friends of Folkwang Museum – a move illustrating the ambiguity of Nolde’s position. Although his paintings were removed from the “Degenerate Art” exhibition at the end of 1938, which Nolde took to mean his reputation had been restored, he no longer received official recognition. When it became known that Nolde’s income amounted to some 80,000 Reichsmark in 1940, he was expelled from the Reich Chamber of Visual Arts in August 1941 and he was no longer allowed to exhibit his works, sell or publish anything without the express prior permission of the authorities.9 Despite such repressive measures Ada and Emil Nolde continued to sympathize with the regime, and until the end of the Second World War their comments still reflected Nazi propaganda. 10

The post-War period (1945–1956)

May 1945 marked a change in direction regarding Nolde’s political affiliations. Nolde was able to provide plausible evidence to the effect that he was pursued and ostracized as a victim of the Nazi regime. 11 Nolde himself did not reflect on his ambivalent situation in these years. As a Nazi Party member he also had to undergo denazification, but this was accomplished fairly easily through the presentation of two letters from 1941 expelling him from the Reich Chamber. For his part, he issued numerous acquaintances, some of them high-ranking Party functionaries, with statements that they had not been Nazis. In the last ten years of his life Nolde received the recognition that he might have hoped for during the Nazi regime but that had not been forthcoming. On the occasion of his 79th birthday he was awarded an honorary professorship by the State of Schleswig-Holstein, in 1952 the medal Pour Le Mérite. From the 1960s onwards, his small-format watercolours were presented as “Unpainted Pictures” and placed in a narrative framework with his occupational ban. 12 However, in fact many of these paintings were produced before Nolde’s expulsion from the Reich Chamber and not after the war as he claimed in his memoirs “Reisen. Ächtung. Befreiung” (Travel. Ostracism. Liberation) (1967 published posthumously) written in secret at a time when he was forbidden to paint. Nolde died in 1956 at the age of 88 in Seebüll. Like his first wife Ada, who died in 1946, he was also buried in the vault on the plot. He spent the last years of his life with Jolanthe Nolde, whom he had married in 1948. Nolde had instructed in his will that a foundation be created to manage his estate. In the year of his death the Ada und Emil Nolde Foundation was recognized and continues to perform the task to this day.

Aya Soika

  • 1
    A detailed overview on Emil Nolde’s biography is provided by the website of the Ada and Emil Nolde Foundation in Seebüll. For a comprehensive overview of Nolde’s life consult Kirsten Jüngling’s biography: Emil Nolde. Die Farben sind meine Noten, (Berlin, 2013)
  • 2
    on the role of Ada see the articles in Ada Nolde ‚meine Vielgeliebte ‘. Muse und Managerin Noldes, ed. by Christian Ring and Astrid Becker, (Munich, 2019).
  • 3
    See on this the essays in the exhibition catalogue Nolde und die Brücke, ed. by Hans-Werner Schmidt und Anette Hüsch, (Museum der bildenden Künstle Leipzig and Kunsthalle zu Kiel, (Munich, 2017).
  • 4
    See. Astrid Becker, “‘Verehrte Frau Nolde! Sie sind ja wunderbar.’ Ada Nolde und die Künstler der Brücke.,” in: ibid., pp. 80–91.
  • 5
    Numerous catalogues and texts have been published on the trip to the South Pacific, See et. al. Aya Soika, “Emil Noldes Südsee-Aquarelle im kolonialen Kontext,” in: Sønderjylland-Schleswig Kolonial – Eine Spurenlese, ed. by Marco L. Petersen, University of Southern Denmark Studies in History and Social Sciences, vol. 569, (Odense, 2018), pp. 277–302.
  • 6
    Emil Nolde statement for the journal “Museum der Gegenwart”, 12.2.1932, copy, Archive of the Nolde Foundation Seebüll. Printed in Aya Soika, Bernhard Fulda: Emil Nolde – eine deutsche Legende. Der Künstler im Nationalsozialismus. Chronik und Dokumente, ed by Bernhard Fulda, Christian Ring, Aya Soika, (Munich 2019), doc. 10, p. 54.
  • 7
    Emil Nolde to Max Sauerlandt, 8.4.1933, Archive of the Nolde Foundation Seebüll. Copy in ibid., doc. 10, p. 54.
  • 8
    Tekla Hess to Emil Nolde, 29.1.1935, Archive of the Nolde Foundation Seebüll. Cited in ibid., p. 90.
  • 9
    See Bernhard Fulda, “Emil Noldes Berufsverbot: Eine Spurensuche,” in: Anja Tiedemann (ed.), Die Kammer schreibt schon wieder! Das Reglement für den Handel mit moderner Kunst im Nationalsozialismus, Schriften der Forschungsstelle “Entartete Kunst,” vol. 10, (Berlin, 2016) (pp. 127–145.)
  • 10
    See Bernhard Fulda, “Noldes Antisemitismus,” in: Bernhard Fulda, Emil Nolde – eine deutsche Legende. Der Künstler im Nationalsozialismus. Illustrated collection of essays, exhib. cat. (Nationalgalerie Berlin, 2019), ed. by Bernhard Fulda, Christian Ring and Aya Soika for Nationalgalerie der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin and the Nolde Foundation (Seebüll, Munich, 2019), pp. 97–114.
  • 11
    See Bernhard Fulda, “Die Entstehung einer deutschen Nachkriegslegende,” in: ibid., pp. 221–244.
  • 12
    See Bernhard Fulda, “‘Die ungemalten Bilder’: Genese eines Mythos,” in: ibid., pp. 179–217.