Karl Schmidt-Rottluff

1 December 1884, Rottluff near Chemnitz, Germany

10 August 1976, Berlin, Germany

Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Self-Portrait, 1949 © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2019


Origins and initial involvement in art (1884–1905)

Karl Friedrich Schmidt was born on 1 December 1884, the son of mill foreman August Schmidt and his wife Auguste Marie, in Rottluff, near Chemnitz in Saxony. He was the third child and was followed by three more siblings. Even at grammar school, he willingly attended art classes with the architect Friedrich Otto Uhlmann and became a founding member of his school’s “Vulkan” club, which staged plays, readings and exhibitions. It was here that he met Erich Heckel, and a lifelong friendship developed between the two. Karl Schmidt gained further important inspiration for his artistic interests from the exhibitions by the Kunstverein Kunsthütte art association in Chemnitz, which he visited regularly from 1899 onwards. From around 1901 he began producing his own artworks – watercolours, studies in oil and woodcuts. By 1904 he was already exhibiting his own watercolour landscapes at the Kunsthütte in Chemnitz. In 1905, Karl Schmidt gained his high-school leaver’s certificate in Chemnitz and followed his friend Erich Heckel to Dresden, where the latter had enrolled to study Architecture the previous year.

The Brücke Group (1905–1913)

In 1905, Karl Schmidt likewise signed up to study Architecture at the Royal Saxon Technical College in Dresden. There he met Heckel’s friends and fellow architecture students Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Fritz Bleyl. The young men sketched and painted together, and on 7 June 1905 they founded the Brücke group. Karl Schmidt added his place of birth to his name and was from then on known as Karl Schmidt-Rottluff. As far as Heckel remembered, it was Schmidt-Rottluff who came up with the suggestion for the group’s name: Brücke – “it’s a very versatile word, it wouldn’t predetermine anything but rather would take us from one side to another as it were.” [Footnote Erich Heckel talking to H.K. in 1958, in: Das Kunstwerk, vol 12, 1958/59, no. 3, p. 24.] An exhibition at Dresden’s Galerie Ernst Arnold in November 1905 included paintings by Vincent van Gogh, which fascinated Schmidt-Rottluff and had a lasting influence on his art. In the summer of 1906, he spent four months on the Baltic Sea island of Alsen visiting his painting colleague Emil Nolde, whom he had previously been able to bring on board as a member of the Brücke. That same year, Schmidt-Rottluff acted as secretary of the Brücke and the main initiator of its first exhibition of woodcuts, which took place at the Dresden lighting factory of Karl Max Seifert. In order to dedicate himself entirely and freely to art, he discontinued studying in April 1907, spending the summers between 1907 and 1912 on the North Sea coast near Oldenburg, in Dangastermoor and Dangast. At times he was joined by Erich Heckel and Max Pechstein, who was also a member of the Brücke as of 1906 onwards. In Oldenburg and Hamburg, where Schmidt-Rottluff maintained a studio between 1910 and 1912, circles of friends, patrons and collectors began to form and these included, among others, the lawyer and collector Gustav Schiefler and art historians Wilhelm Niemeyer and Rosa Schapire. Hamburg’s Galerie Commeter was the venue for his first solo exhibition, while in Berlin, Schmidt-Rottluff and the other Brücke artists became members of the New Secession and the Deutscher Künstlerbund (the German Artists’ Association) in 1910. In the autumn of 1911, Schmidt-Rottluff moved to Berlin, where he met artist Lyonel Feininger, with whom he developed an intense friendship. At the international art exhibition staged by the Sonderbund westdeutscher Kunstfreunde und Künstler in Cologne in 1912, in which some of his own works were included, Schmidt-Rottluff set eyes on Cubist works by Picasso, which had a lasting impact on him. In May 1913, the Brücke group disbanded and Schmidt-Rottluff spent the summer in Nida on the Curonian Spit. He began collecting objects of non-European art, which he depicted in some of the still lifes he produced during that year.

The First World War (1914–1918)

In May 1915, Schmidt-Rottluff was conscripted for military service and was then stationed in Lithuania and Russia until 1918. After his initial deployment as a non-combatant equipment serviceman, the efforts of Richard Dehmel in late 1916 meant he was able to move to the accountancy office attached to the Press Unit in the Upper East Staff HQ in Kaunas, where he joined other artists and writers (such as Magnus Zeller, Hermann Struck, Alfred Brust and Arnold Zweig). There, he was to a limited extent able to pursue his art. The material he used here was wood, and he designed wooden sculptures and woodcuts including those dealing with religious themes for the first time (the subsequently so-called “Christ portfolio” that appeared in 1918), as well as his only series of book illustrations, which he created for a play written by his wartime comrade Alfred Brust.

Recognition as an artist (1919–1929)

In the spring of 1919, Schmidt-Rottluff married photographer Emy Frisch, who came from Chemnitz although the wedding took place in Berlin. His circle of friends expanded to include sculptors Georg Kolbe, Richard Scheibe, Emy Roeder and architect Walter Gropius. The latter managed to bring him on board for the program of the “Arbeitsrat für Kunst”, the “Works Council for Art”, and tried in vain to engage him as a teacher at the Bauhaus. As a new summer home for the years between 1920 and 1931, Schmidt-Rottluff chose the location of Jershöft (now Jarosławiec in Poland) on the Baltic Sea coast in Eastern Pomerania. Numerous German art magazines published articles on his oeuvre, and museums acquired his pieces. In 1920, Wilhelm Reinhold Valentiner compiled the first monograph about him, which was published by Klinkhardt & Biermann Verlag. In 1921, he designed furniture and artworks for the apartment of his friend, art historian Rosa Schapire. Together with Georg Kolbe and Richard Scheibe, in 1923 he made his first trip to Italy, making further trips to Paris and Dalmatia in 1924, and from 1927 to 1929 he made multiple trips to Ticino, Switzerland. In 1924, Rosa Schapire published the catalogue raisonné of his prints.

The 1930s and the Second World War (1930–1945)

In the spring of 1930, Schmidt-Rottluff was resident scholar at the Villa Massimo in Rome. In 1931, he was made a member of the Prussian Academy of Arts. At the invitation of the painter, collector and gallery-owner Hanna Bekker vom Rath, in 1932, Schmidt-Rottluff made his first trip to her “Blue House” in Hofheim in the Taunus foothills outside Frankfurt, which was a meeting point for contemporary artists and became a second home for Schmidt-Rottluff until the end of his life. Schmidt-Rottluff found peace and inspiration during the summers from 1932 to 1943 in the remote village of Rabka on Lake Łebsko on the East Pomeranian Baltic Sea coast. From 1933 onwards, the art policies pursued by the Nazis denounced Schmidt-Rottluff’s art as “degenerate”; in 1933, he left the Prussian Academy of Arts and his works were removed from German museums. The “Degenerate Art” exhibition in Munich in 1937 displayed many of his works up to ridicule, and in April 1941 Schmidt-Rottluff was excluded from the Reich Chamber of Fine Arts and prohibited from painting. A bombing raid in autumn 1943 resulted in the complete destruction of his studio and his apartment in Berlin. Schmidt-Rottluff and his wife Emy set out from Rabka to travel to his family home in Chemnitz’s Rottluff district, where he lived until the end of 1946.

The post-war years and the construction of Brücke-Museum (1946–1976)

After taking a job as a professor at Berlin’s Hochschule für Bildende Künste in 1946, Schmidt-Rottluff returned to the city. He began teaching in 1947 and continued until 1954. He recommenced his yearly travel rhythm, with the village of Sierksdorf on the Bay of Lübeck (Baltic Sea) as his new and final summer destination until 1973, and in the years between 1949 and 1953 he once again made annual trips to Ticino, Switzerland, in the autumn. In 1952, Schmidt-Rottluff became the second chairman of the Deutscher Künstlerbund and won the Art Prize of the City of Berlin. The year 1956 saw publication of a comprehensive monograph about the artist with a provisional catalogue raisonné of his oil paintings by Will Grohmann. Schmidt-Rottluff was awarded the Order Pour le Mérite’s Peace Prize, as well as numerous other accolades, and in 1959 his first exhibition in then East Germany was held at the Städtische Kunstsammlung in Chemnitz. In 1964, Schmidt-Rottluff gave up oil painting for health reasons, but a major retrospective show was staged in Hanover, Essen, Frankfurt/Main and Berlin to mark the artist’s 80th birthday. With a gift of 75 of his own works to the State of Berlin, Schmidt-Rottluff initiated the creation of Brücke-Museum in Berlin, which was opened in 1967. Schmidt-Rottluff was named an Honorary Citizen of the City of Berlin and in 1974 he became an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in New York. In 1975, his wife Emy died, and that same year the Karl Schmidt-Rottluff Sponsorship Foundation was launched, which awarded a bursary to young artists twice a year. Schmidt-Rottluff died on 10 August 1976 in Berlin, and his artistic legacy subsequently passed to the Karl and Emy Schmidt-Rottluff Foundation.

Christiane Remm


Christiane Remm, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Junge Kunst, vol. 21, (Munich: Klinkhardt & Biermann Verlag, 2016).

Magdalena M. Moeller, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff. Eine Monographie, (Munich: Hirmer Verlag, 2010).

Karl Brix, “Karl Schmidt-Rottluff. Biographie,” in: Karl Schmidt-Rottluff. Der Maler, eds. Magdalena M. Moeller & Hans-Werner Schmidt (eds.), (Stuttgart: Verlag Gerd Hatje, 1992), pp. 252–75.

Gunther Thiem, “Dokumentation zu Leben und Werk,” in: Karl Schmidt-Rottluff. Retrospektive, eds. Gunther Thiem & Arnim Zweite, (Munich: Prestel-Verlag, 1989), pp. 77–105.