Emil Nolde was a German Expressionist painter, printmaker, and watercolourist known for his early violent religious works and his foreboding landscapes. He was born Emil Hansen on August 7, 1867, in the town of Nolde near the German-Danish border. His father was a farmer and Nolde recognized early on that the farm life did not suit him.
At 17, Nolde began an apprenticeship as a wood sculptor and draftsman at the Sauermann furniture factory and wood-carving school in Flensburg and from 1888-1891, he worked as a woodcarver in furniture factories in Munich and Karlsruhe, where he gained entrance to the school of applied arts in 1889, and secretly took figure-drawing classes.
In 1892, Nolde became an industrial drawing instructor at the St. Gallen museum of industrial arts in Switzerland. During this time, he produced his first landscape watercolours and drawings and in 1894, he began a series of grotesque representations of the mountain peaks as mythical figures, which he had printed in large editions as “Mountain Postcards”. The financial success of these works allowed him to leave his job in 1898 and become a freelance painter at 31 years old.
However, that same year he was rejected by the Munich Academy of Fine Art and he spent the next three years taking private painting classes and visiting Paris where he became familiar with and influenced by the Impressionists.
He married a young Danish actress, Ada Vilstrup, in 1902, at which point he took the name of his birthplace to become Emil Nolde. The couple moved to Berlin and in 1906, Nolde was invited to join the revolutionary expressionist group Die Brücke (The Bridge) formed by Fritz Bleyl, Erich Heckel, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, who later championed Nolde’s work.
In 1908, he visited his friend Hans Fehr in Cospeda near Jena, where he discovered his enjoyment of watercolours. He later became a member of the Berlin Secession, an association that lasted until 1910 when a disagreement with the president of the group, Max Liebermann, forced him out. From 1910-1912, he exhibited often, including with Kandinsky’s Der Blaue Reiter in 1912, by which time he had achieved enough fame to finally support himself and his wife through his art. In 1911-1912, Nolde painted his most important work, the nine-piece “Life of Christ”.
Nolde travelled extensively in the 1920s but he led an increasingly reclusive life at home on the Baltic coast of Germany. His landscape paintings from this time have a cooler tonality than his earlier works yet his masterful flower compositions retained the vibrant colours of his work as a young artist.
In 1927, on the artist’s 60th birthday, his “Anniversary Exhibition” opened in Dresden, which later travelled to Hamburg, Kiel, Essen and Wiesbaden. In 1931 he became a member of the Prussian Academy of the Arts and the first volume of his autobiography “Das eigene Leben” (My own life), was published.
Nolde supported the National Socialist German Workers' Party from the early 1920s and later expressed anti-semitic views on Jewish artists and their involvement with the Expressionists. Still, his work, along with the other modernists, was termed degenerate art and he was officially condemned by Hitler, despite that he was an esteemed artist in Germany. In 1937, 1,052 of Nolde’s works were confiscated, more than any other artist, and he was the most prominently represented artist at the ‘Degenerate Art’ exhibition despite his protests. His appeals were successful in having the works that were confiscated from his private collection returned to him, and they were subsequently removed from later ‘Degenerate Art’ exhibitions.
However, the restrictions on his ability to work as an artist intensified and by 1941, he was banned from painting even in private. He was also prohibited from selling or exhibiting his work and lost his right to obtain painting materials, which had already grown scarce. Nevertheless, Nolde did not turn away from the Nazis but continued to hope for recognition of his art by the regime, with which he sympathized until 1945. He also continued to paint in secret, creating hundreds of small watercolours which he called the “unpainted pictures”, or “painting sketches”, which he planned to execute later in oil.
In August 1946, the denazification committee exonerated Nolde, despite his party membership, thereby interpreting the Nazi rejection of Nolde’s art as a “rejection of the regime.” He continued to paint prolifically after the war, creating hundreds of watercolour works until 1955, but he often only reworked older themes. Still, he won numerous awards and honours, including the Stefan-Lochner medal of the City of Cologne (1949), the Print Prize of the XXVL Venice Biennale (1952) and the Order “Pour le mérite” (1952).
Before his death, Nolde established the “Ada and Emil Nolde Foundation Seebüll”. The foundation, directed by Nolde’s old friend, Joachim von Lepel was tasked with managing Nolde’s extensive Seebüll estate in accordance with the artist’s sensibilities, preserving his work for posterity, and circulating it worldwide. The first Annual Exhibition in the Nolde house opened in 1957, the year after the artist's death at 88 years old.