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Karl Schmidt-Rottluff Photo

Karl Schmidt-Rottluff

German Painter and Printmaker

Born: December 1, 1884 - Rottluff, Germany
Died: August 10, 1976 - Berlin, Germany
Movements and Styles:
German Expressionism
Die Brücke
"Art is forever manifesting itself in new forms, since there are forever new personalities - its essence can never alter, I believe. Perhaps I am wrong. But speaking for myself, I know that I have no program, only the unaccountable longing to grasp what I see and feel, and to find the purest means of expressing for it."
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Karl Schmidt-Rottluff
"The essence of art can never change. I'm convinced you can't talk about art. At best, you will have a translation, a poetic paraphrase, and as for that I'll leave that to the poets."
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Karl Schmidt-Rottluff
"On occasion I came to exaggerate certain forms, in violation of scientific proportion but in accordance with the balance of their spiritual relationships to each other. I made heads vastly oversized in relation to other parts of the body, because the head is the point of concentration of all the psyche, all expression."
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Karl Schmidt-Rottluff

Summary of Karl Schmidt-Rottluff

Karl Schmidt-Rottluff was one of the four founding members of the artistic group Die Brücke, a collective formed in Dresden in 1905. He and his colleagues - along with other artists in Munich and Vienna who together defined the multifaceted style known as German Expressionism - shared a desire to reject both the restrictive social conventions of the time and the traditional aesthetic conventions and academic training provided by art schools. Although the Brücke artists moved to Berlin and disbanded the group not long after, Schmidt-Rottluff maintained his avant-garde ideals throughout his career. He served during World War I, forced by circumstance and by trauma to reduce his output to woodcut prints, but enjoyed considerable success in the following years, when Expressionism became more widely accepted by collectors and museums. Schmidt-Rottluff was among those artists labelled "degenerate" by the Nazi regime, but after World War II, with renewed attention, he helped found a museum in Berlin dedicated to the work of the Brücke artists.


  • The goal of Schmidt-Rottluff and his Die Brücke colleagues was to create a new kind of art through the exploration of direct experience and emotion in nature and humanity. As he wrote in 1914, "I have no program, only the inner longing to grasp what I see and feel and to find the purest expression for it. I know I can approach these things only through art, rather than thoughts or words." To achieve this goal, he sought inspiration in the simplified forms of both European avant-garde and non-European art, and produced oil paintings, watercolors, prints, drawings, and sculptures.
  • In the early part of his career, Schmidt-Rottluff was one of the most radical practitioners of woodcut printing, a medium his colleagues also took up. Learning from Japanese techniques along with those of artists including Albrecht Dürer, Paul Gauguin, and Edvard Munch, he produced powerful, highly simplified prints by letting the rough-hewn quality of the wood on which he created the image remain evident. This approach also informed his painting and came to characterize much of the Expressionist style.
  • Having initially begun studying as an architecture student, Schmidt-Rottluff maintained his interest in three-dimensional form, producing wood carvings, decorative objects, and sculptures in wood and stone throughout his career. He also collected masks and sculpture from Africa. Much of his work reveals his exploration of the interrelations between two- and three-dimensional objects and decorative and representative forms.

Biography of Karl Schmidt-Rottluff

Karl Schmidt-Rottluff Photo

Karl Schmidt was born in Rottluff, a small town in eastern Germany where his father owned a mill (he added the name of his birthplace to his own name in 1906). As a child, he attended the Humanistische Gymnasium, a secondary school that focused on the classics, including the arts. There he met Erich Heckel, who was a year older. Their friendship flourished in the "Vulkan" club, their school's arts and debating society, where they had lively anti-bourgeois art and philosophy discussions. When Heckel left to study architecture at the Sächsische Technische Hochschule in Dresden in 1904, Schmidt-Rottluff followed him the year after, though he dropped out after one semester.

Important Art by Karl Schmidt-Rottluff

Progression of Art

Autumn Landscape in Oldenburg

One of Schmidt-Rottluff's early works, Autumn Landscape in Oldenburg exemplifies his style shortly after the Brücke group came together. It was painted outdoors during his first summer in the village of Dangast, on the North Sea coast in the Oldenburg region of Germany, a location he described as "quite fantastic, everything simply demanding to be painted." The Brücke artists' visits each summer to rural sites reflected their rejection of the period's restrictive social conventions and search for a simpler way of life, away from the industrialization and corruption of the city. This search aligned with a longstanding German tradition of valuing direct contact with nature as a source of inspiration, and also echoed the more contemporary approach of French artists such as Paul Gauguin, who sought to depict regional cultures he considered simpler and more "primitive," far from the French capital.

This painting's simplified composition, bold brushwork, and vibrant, exaggerated colors similarly embody Schmidt-Rottluff's effort to overturn traditional pictorial conventions and were partly inspired by Vincent van Gogh's work. The two farmhouses at the top of the canvas are nearly the same size and shape as the haystacks in the foreground, and this along with the zigzagging bands of color that link them collapses the space in the image into a nearly flat surface. The sharp color contrasts between oranges and yellows and blues and greens also effectively convey the warm light of an autumn day.

Oil on canvas - Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

Woman with a Bag (1915)

Woman with a Bag

By 1910, Schmidt-Rottluff had largely abandoned the thick, agitated brushstrokes that had characterized his early work, and begun to move toward composing with broader, flatter areas of color, as this painting reveals. He also began to depict human figures more frequently, like his Brücke colleagues. Painted with a subdued palette of primarily earth tones, this painting shows a woman in a roughly defined space, standing before a pale shape that might represent a feature of the room. Holding one hand to her heart and the other to her head - a gesture that traditionally signifies melancholy or despair - she seems to express the sadness of the wartime moment in which the work was painted. Indeed, just a short time later, Schmidt-Rottluff left Berlin for military service on the Russian front.

The blocks and patches of color indicate Schmidt-Rottluff's knowledge of the Cubist works of Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso, some of whose paintings had already been exhibited in Germany by this time. Like the two French modernists, German artists also looked to non-Western art for inspiration, particularly that of Africa and Oceania. This is best seen in the woman's face, where simplified, elongated shapes recall similar forms in West African masks and sculptures. While Braque and Picasso in their pre-war Cubist works radically disrupted the illusionistic surface, however, breaking down objects and figures into components that were nearly illegible, Schmidt-Rottluff, like many other artists who were inspired by the ideas of Cubism, never fully adopted its radical visual approach. Despite the discontinuities in Woman with a Bag, particularly in the background, the figure remains clearly defined, composed of simplified shapes that logically follow anatomical forms.

Within Schmidt-Rottluff's oeuvre, this painting demonstrates the shift in his style from the early, more impressionistic landscapes. It also links with the rough, dramatically simple forms he had developed in his woodcuts, a print medium that had been central to the development of the Brücke style.

Oil on canvas - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom



Made while the artist was serving in World War I, Christ (also sometimes titled Head of Christ), is a prime example of the shifts in Schmidt-Rottluff's art during the war. The anxiety and trauma he experienced left him unable to paint for a time, so he turned to woodcut, a medium he had already explored along with other Brücke artists. Near the end of the war and for about a year after his return to Berlin in 1918, he also treated primarily religious subjects like this one, perhaps another form of response to his experience of the conflict. He differed in this choice from many other German artists of the time, who often depicted the horrors of war more directly.

Christ is part of a portfolio of nine woodcuts depicting scenes from the life of Christ the artist published, recalling the long tradition of such series that includes Albrecht Dürer's sixteenth-century woodcuts. While some of the prints in the portfolio depict frequently represented moments of the narrative, like Judas betraying Christ, this image is more static and iconic. Schmidt-Rottluff has represented Christ as a mask-like head using jagged, rough-hewn lines and angular forms that allude to the African and Oceanic art that inspired modernists across Europe. The exaggerated features, with bulging lips and asymmetrical eyes, as if one were partially closed or swollen, also suggest Christ's injuries and suffering. The year 1918 is inscribed on his forehead and the phrase "Christ did not appear to you" below. In this way the artist places Christ's suffering in the context of the ravages and futility of the World War, commenting on the physical, psychological, and spiritual damage he and so many others had experienced.

Woodcut - Hammer Museum, Los Angeles


Dr. Rosa Schapire

One of almost a dozen portraits by Schmidt-Rottluff of the art historian and Brücke supporter Dr. Rosa Schapire, this painting evidences both their close relationship and the evolution of the artist's style after World War I. The angular forms and broken patches of color are similar to the treatment of figures in his pre-war paintings and prints, but the colors are considerably brighter. While the stylized facial features indicate his continuing engagement with the concepts of Cubism, the heightened colors suggest his knowledge of another major modernist figure: Henri Matisse. Indeed, the unexpected band of blue on the sitter's forehead and nose recall a similar form in Matisse's portrait of his wife known as The Green Stripe (1905, Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen).

Schapire appears seated, with a smiling, open expression. Behind her is a small table above which hangs a painting, alluding to her role as an art historian and a supporter of the arts (she later published a catalogue raisonné of Schmidt-Rottluff's prints). The angular features of the head within the painting echo those of Schapire herself, presumably because Schmidt-Rottluff intended to represent another of his own works, hung on the wall of his summer retreat at Hohwacht on the Baltic coast, where this portrait was painted. He gave this canvas to Schapire as a Christmas present that year, and it later became part of a decorative plan the artist devised in 1921 for her home in Hamburg, along with Woman with a Bag (see above) and other paintings, carvings, furniture, and textiles. She was able to bring both paintings with her to England when she fled Nazi Germany in 1939. The work thus reflects the artist's aesthetic development as well as one of his closest and most significant professional relationships with a notable figure in German art history.

Oil on canvas - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom


Evening in the Room

Moonlight shines into the corner of a crowded room, where nearly every element overlaps the next, from the table, chairs, and sheer curtains to what may be a framed canvas tucked behind them. The work is painted with the fairly regular brushstrokes and more naturalistic colors typical of Schmidt-Rottluff's style in this period, when he modified his earlier, more radical approach in part to avoid the growing public criticism of expressionism.

Indeed, despite the air of calm that seems to emanate from this canvas, it was painted during a stressful period in Schmidt-Rottluff's life, when his work had been labelled "degenerate" by the Nazi regime and he had been forced to leave his position at the Prussian Academy of Arts, although he could still paint and exhibit his work. He increasingly spent time outside Berlin, either on the Baltic Sea coast or at the home of Hanna Bekker vom Rath - one of his most important patrons - in a small town outside Frankfurt, where this work was painted. The compressed space of the composition may reflect the somewhat makeshift nature of his living and working situation, and hints at the limitations he experienced in creating his work. This painting, like many of the interiors and still lifes Schmidt-Rottluff made in the 1930s and 1940s, represents both an exploration of space, light, and color through everyday subject matter, and - if considered from a biographical perspective - an expression of the difficult political and social conditions the artist was facing.

Oil on canvas - Museum Wiesbaden


The Black Mask

In late 1946, Schmidt-Rottluff accepted a position at the University of Fine Arts and returned to Berlin. He resumed painting, and his reputation as an important artist was quickly restored, thanks in part to a broader effort to rehabilitate avant-garde artists and celebrate their persistence despite Nazi suppression. He continued to paint numerous still lifes as he had during the 1930s, using the same kinds of simplified forms and flattened spatial compositions, as this work demonstrates. The broad, smooth outlines of The Black Mask, however, are characteristic of his later work, while the bold, non-naturalistic colors mark a kind of return to the more radical experimentation of his early years.

Many of his later still lifes include a carved or sculpted object among the few simple items that make up the image. Here, along with two seashells and a candlestick that he himself had carved decades earlier, he depicts a nineteenth century wooden mask from Ivory Coast (a work he owned and later donated to the Brücke Museum). As well as demonstrating Schmidt-Rottluff's longstanding interest in simplified forms inspired by non-European sources, this image suggests an exploration of the process of representation, as the artist records the naturally formed shells, the decoratively carved candlestick, and the schematic yet representative mask in the similarly schematic language of his painting.

Oil on canvas - Brücke Museum, Berlin

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Karl Schmidt-Rottluff
Influenced by Artist
Friends & Personal Connections
  • No image available
    Adolf Ziegler
Movements & Ideas
Friends & Personal Connections
  • No image available
    Gustav Schiefler
  • No image available
    Rosa Schapire
Open Influences
Close Influences

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Content compiled and written by Ximena Kilroe

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Sarah Lees

"Karl Schmidt-Rottluff Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Ximena Kilroe
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Sarah Lees
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First published on 05 Dec 2020. Updated and modified regularly
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