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Nolde, Emil: Hanging example

Emil Nolde

1867 Nolde ‐ 1956 Seebüll

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Short information about the artist

Emil Nolde was one of the leading Expressionist painters and, along with August Macke and Paul Klee, was one of the first artists to rediscover watercolour painting in the early 20th century.

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More information about the artist

Emil Nolde was one of the leading Expressionist painters and, along with August Macke and Paul Klee, was one of the first artists to rediscover watercolour painting in the early 20th century.

Early years and education

Emil Nolde was born as Emil Hansen on August 7, 1867 in Nolde-Burkall, a small German-Danish town in Schleswig, as the sixth child of a farming family. He only got the name of his hometown Nolde when he married the Danish actress Ada Vilstrup in 1902. After an apprenticeship as a furniture draftsman and wood carver in Flensburg from 1884 to 1888, Emil Nolde worked as a designer and carver for various furniture factories in Munich, Karlsruhe and Berlin. In 1892 he found a job as a teacher for ornamental drawing and modeling at the School of Applied Arts in St. Gallen, Switzerland. During this time he made his first landscape watercolors and drawings of mountain farmers. His depictions of the Swiss Alps are ultimately printed as mountain postcards and bring him considerable financial gain, which allows him to live as a freelance artist. Some of the early works are published in the magazine “Jugend”. Since his application for admission to the Munich Academy was rejected by Franz von Stuck, Nolde took lessons in private painting schools in Munich and Dessau from 1898 onwards. The following year he continued his studies at the Académie Julian in Paris. By dealing with the neo-impressionists Vincent van Gogh, Edvard Munch and James Ensor, the artist moved from his initial romantic naturalism to an independent style in which color played an essential role. He uses them without taking formal criteria into account from a sudden, abrupt need for expression and increases them to the highest luminosity in the following years.

The Brücke

In 1906 the artist met the “Brücke” painters, whose group he joined for a year. He participates in exhibitions of the artist movement and a long stay in Dresden resulted in close personal contact. Based on visible reality, Nolde designed portraits, landscapes and garden pictures until 1909. Increasingly, he spreads the paint across the surface like a carpet. He strives for simplification and compression with the aim of “reevaluating nature by adding one’s own soul and spirit”. In 1909 he moved to his home in Schleswig-Holstein in Ruttebüll. In the quiet and seclusion and hardly recovered from a serious illness, pictures with religious-Christian themes are created, the form of which is so reduced that the visionary expression is drawn solely from colour and light. Nolde’s religious motifs, however, do not seem to be rooted in Christian models, but in the caricatures of a Daumier or the grotesque Goya. Furthermore, they are characterized by a disharmonious color scheme, which gives them a visionary, tending to be surrealistic character. Nolde’s turn to watercolours begins in the series of portrait studies. When Nolde made his first attempts at this technique in 1909 on non-absorbent paper, leaving the sheet white in large parts and dispensing with contouring in the object detection, this innovation was trend-setting.

Research trip to New Guinea

In 1913 and 1914 the painter undertook an expedition to New Guinea, where he came into contact with the art of indigenous peoples and dealt with the primordial human conditions. For himself he claimed the originality and intense expressiveness. Numerous paintings and watercolours are created during this research trip. From 1918 on, watercolours became more and more important alongside printmaking and painting. His graphic oeuvre mainly includes lithographs, etchings and numerous woodcuts. In 1927 the painter chose to live in Seebüll, North Frisia. There he designs his own house and studio in the garden. Five years later he was accepted into the Prussian Academy of the Arts.

The war and post-war period

In 1934 Nolde joined the National Socialist Working Group in North Schleswig (NSAN), which one year later was “brought into line” with the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP). Even if Nolde was a member of the NSDAP, the National Socialists classified his art as “degenerate” in 1937. After the “Degenerate Art” exhibition in Munich, a total of 1,052 works by Nolde were removed from public museums in the same year. Four years later he was banned from painting. The artist hides his pictures to protect them from access by the Nazi regime. He described the small-format watercolours he made during this period, despite the ban on painting, as “unpainted pictures”. Emil Nolde died on April 13, 1956 in Seebüll. Since his death there has been the seat of the “Foundation Seebüll Ada and Emil Nolde”, which presents exhibitions of Nolde’s works there every year.

Watercolour painting

Especially since 1908 he has devoted himself intensively to this technology. His watercolour painting is characterized by the rapid, high-contrast application of paint and the improvisational lightness of his compositions. From 1913 onwards, Nolde mainly used Japanese paper, which is based on his wet-on-wet technique. This new watercolor technique was based on completely soaking damp Japanese paper with flowing watercolours and first adding contour lines and reinforcements to the dried leaves. Most watercolours are created without a preliminary drawing.

Still life with flowers and garden pictures

In his own words, the inspiration for his first still life with flowers and garden pictures came from his mother’s garden. Nolde grew up on his parents’ estate in northern Germany. Flower and garden motifs run almost continuously through the entire pictorial work. Everywhere where the painter settled, he laid out gardens. When he chose to live in Seebüll, North Frisia, in 1927, he designed his own house and studio with a garden. “There were just bare green fields around the house. Our garden was to become a piece of such grass field. A tough start, but it had to be successful.” Sitting directly in front of the garden plants, Nolde made numerous watercolours. The painter describes the magical attraction that the colours and the growth of the flowers and plants exerted on him as overwhelming.