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Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
Birth Date: 
Birth Place: 
Aschaffenburg, Bavaria, Germany
Death Date: 
Death Place: 
Frauenkirche, Switzerland
One of the leading German Expressionist artists of the first third of the 20th century, Ernst Ludwig Krichner was a prolific artist who created over a thousand oil paintings as well as hundreds of woodcuts, etchings and lithographs and a larger number of drawings. His mature style was highly personal, notable for psychological tension and eroticism. Kirchner was born in Aschaffenburg in northern Bavaria, near Frankfurt am Main. His father was a chemical engineer, working in papermaking industry, whose career took the family first to Frankfurt, then to Perlen, Switzerland (near Lucerne) and finally to Chemnitz in eastern Germany. Krichner graduated from high school in Chemnitz in 1901. He studied architecture in Dresden and then Munich, while developing his interest in art, stimulated by visits to Munich’s art museums and an exhibition of Post-Impressionist artists. With other young artists, Kirchner founded Die Brücke in 1905 in Dresden and participated in an exhibition of watercolors, woodcuts and drawings by members of the group later that year in Leipzig. The following year Emil Nolde (1867-1956) and Max Pechstein (1881-1955) joined Die Brücke, as well as collectors who became “passive” members, receiving prints in return for a subscription payment. The group mounted a show in Dresden in late 1906 and again in 1907, and produced a portfolio of woodcuts annually. Kirchner also began etching around 1906. The first portraits of Doris Grosse, Kirchner’s model then lover, date from 1906. He began visiting the island of Fehmarn in the Baltic Sea during the summer of 1908, the first of many visits that continued until 1914. The 1909 exhibition of works by Henri Matisse (1869-1954) at the Cassirer Gallery in Berlin apparently made a great impression on Kirchner. That year marks his first wooden sculptures. Kirchner became a member of the Federation of German Artists in 1910, the year Kirchner and Die Brücke artists participated in the first New Secession exhibition in Berlin. Perhaps inspired by an exhibition of paintings from Tahiti by Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), Kirchner became interested in art from non-Western cultures, including Egyptian and African art. Kirchner moved to Berlin in 1911, where he met Erna Schilling (1884-1945), who became his model and life-long companion. Exhibitions of works by Die Brücke artists were mounted in Munich and Cologne in 1912, but the following year Kirchner wrote a history of the group in which he took credit for all the group’s new ideas, leading to the breakup of Die Brücke. One of Kirchner’s paintings was included in the 1913 Armory Show in New York City (which traveled to Chicago and Boston). His first one-man show appeared in the Museum Folkwang in Hagen, Germany, moving later in a gallery in Berlin. Kirchner volunteered for military service at the start of World War I, but during training in 1915 suffered a physical and mental collapse, and was discharged. He spent time in various sanatoriums in Germany and Switzerland over the next few years to treat his mental health and dependency on drugs and alcohol. The art dealer Ludwig Schames (1852-1922) mounted the first of eight Kirchner exhibitions at his Frankfurt gallery in 1916. An automobile accident in 1917 left Kirchner with lameness in his legs and arms, which made it difficult for him to work. He rented a farmhouse in Frauenkirche, near Davos, Switzerland during the summer of 1917, and returned there in 1918. Erna oversaw the shipment of his printing press and then the contents of his studio from Berlin in 1919, the year he began publishing articles discussing his own art under the pseudonym Louis de Marsalle. The first acquisition of his works by a public museum occurred in 1919 when the Städel Museum, Frankfurt, bought two paintings. The theme of his art increasingly reflected the Swiss landscape. By 1921 he overcame his addiction to morphine, his health improved and Erna had joined his to live full-time in Frauenkirche. Exhibitions of his works were held in Berlin in 1921 and Basel in 1923. One of his paintings was shown at the 1928 Venice Biennale and graphic works appeared in an exhibition in Paris at the Bibliothèque Nationale. In 1931 his works appeared in exhibitions at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the Palace of Fine Arts, Brussels, and he was elected a member of the Prussian Academy. A large retrospective exhibition of Kirchner’s work was held at the Kunsthalle Bern in 1933. With the Nazis seizure of power in 1933, Kirchner’s art increasingly fell into official disfavor. His work began to be placed into museum storage, and in 1937 over 600 of his works left German museums, some sold and others destroyed. Earlier that year the Detroit Institute of Arts held an exhibition of his works, but in Germany 32 of his works appeared in the “Degenerate Art” exhibition in Munich. He was expelled from the Prussian Academy that year. After Germany invaded Austria in 1938, Kirchner’s physical and mental health deteriorated. He apparently feared that Germany would invade Switzerland. He destroyed some of his drawings and burned wooden sculptures and printing blocks. In June, he shot himself to death. (TNB 3/2015) Selected bibliography: Ketterer, Roman Norbert, Claus Zoege von Manteuffel and Hans Bolliger. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Drawings and Pastels. New York: Alpine Fine Arts Collection, Ltd., 1982. Krämer, Felix, ed. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Retrospective. Exhibition catalog. Ostfioldern: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2010.