On August 7, 1867 Emil Nolde, actually Emil Hansen, was born the fourth son to farmer Niels Hansen and his wife Hanna Christine, in Nolde, a town close to Tondern near the German-Danish border.
At the age of 17 Emil Hansen began an apprenticeship as a wood sculptor and draftsman at the Sauermann furniture factory and wood-carving school in Flensburg.
1888–1891 During his journeyman years Emil Hansen worked as a wood carver in furniture factories in Munich and Karlsruhe, where he also attended the school of applied arts, and surreptitiously took figure-drawing classes. In 1890 he found employment in a Berlin furniture factory, and worked there until his father’s death.
1892–1897 Hansen became a teacher specialized in industrial drawing and modelling at the St. Gallen museum of industrial arts. He produced his first landscape watercolours and drawings. 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 this venture allowed him to leave his job and become a freelance painter.
The Munich Academy under Franz Stuck turned down his application. He attended Friedrich Fehr’s painting school, and then changed to the Hölzel school in Dachau. In 1899 he travelled to Paris, where he attended the Académie Julian and undertook his own studies in the Louvre.
Hansen spent the summer in the fishing village Lild Strand on the north coast of Jutland. There he created a series of fantastical drawings with beachcombers, sleepwalkers and strange natural creatures. He kept up a lively correspondence with the young Danish actress Ada Vilstrup, whom he married in February, 1902. Following the wedding he gave up the name Hansen and took the name of his birthplace, Nolde. The couple initially lived in Berlin, spending their summer weeks in Jutland. In the fall they moved to Flensburg.
Ada and Emil Nolde spent the summer months on the Island of Als. During the winter they lived in Berlin. Their financial straits were dire. In his little wooden studio hut on the beach of Als, Nolde painted his famous piece “Springtime in the Room”, among other works. After Ada had a major health crisis, friends financed a six-month stay in Italy for the couple in 1904/05. In the fall of 1905 Nolde produced the series of etchings “Fantasies”.
Until the end of 1907, Nolde was a member of the “Brücke” artists’ group, and met Edvard Munch in Berlin. In 1908 he visited his friend Hans Fehr in Cospeda near Jena, where he discovered his enjoyment of the watercolour technique. He became a member of the Berlin Secession. In 1909 in the fishing village Ruttebüll, near the North Sea, he painted the first religious pictures: “Last Supper”, “Pentecost” and “Derision”.
Large exhibitions took place in Hamburg, Essen, Jena and Hagen. Nolde produced pictures of the Port of Hamburg, and visited James Ensor in Ostende. After a dispute with the president of the Berlin Secession, Max Liebermann, Nolde was excluded from the group and joined the “New Secession”. He painted Berlin’s night life, did theatre drawings, and produced studies in the Ethnological Museum. In 1911/12 Nolde painted his most important work: the nine-piece “Life of Christ”.
The Noldes travelled as members of the ‘Medical-Demographic German-New-Guinea Expedition’ through Moscow, Siberia, Korea, Japan and China to the South Seas.
In 1915 he produced 88 paintings on Als, including religious motifs such as “Burial”, and paintings from sketches he had done in the South Seas. In 1916 the couple moved to Utenwarf on the west coast. On Hallig Hooge in 1919 he produced a series of fantastical watercolours. In the same year Nolde became a member of the ‘Working Council for Art’ in Berlin. North Schleswig, which included Utenwarf, joined Denmark in 1920. Nolde became a Danish citizen. In 1921 he travelled to Paris, England, Spain and Zurich. The treatise by Max Sauerlandt was published. In 1924 Nolde was drawn to Venice, Rapallo, Arezzo and Vienna.
Nolde left Utenwarf and began construction of his residence at Seebüll to his own design. First to be constructed was the studio (1927). Later Nolde had an upper story added to this ‘workshop’, as he called it: the painting gallery (1937). On the artist’s 60th birthday an “Anniversary Exhibition” opened in Dresden, which subsequently travelled to Hamburg, Kiel, Essen and Wiesbaden. The Christian-Albrechts-Universität in Kiel granted Nolde an honorary doctorate. At the same time the second volume of Schiefler’s catalogue of graphics was published. The construction of a house in Berlin-Dahlem, to plans by Mies van der Rohe, failed for financial reasons. In the summer of 1930 Nolde visited the island of Sylt, where he befriended a Jewish couple, the Turgels. In 1931 Nolde became a member of the Prussian Academy of the Arts. The first volume of the autobiography “Das eigene Leben” (My own life), was published.
After the National Socialists (Nazis) took over the government in 1933, Nolde hoped proponents of his work in the new government would prevail. As Heinrich Himmler’s guest of honour, Nolde took part in ceremonies marking the tenth anniversary of Hitler’s putsch in Munich. In August 1934 Nolde affirmed his support for Hitler’s role as Führer (leader), by adding his signature to the “Call to the Artists”. In the following month as a Danish citizen he became a member of the National Socialist (Nazi) Association of Northern Schleswig’ (NSAN), an organisation of ethnic Germans near the Danish border. A year later this organisation was assimilated into the newly founded NSDAP of Northern Schleswig, the National Socialist German Workers Party. In November 1934 the second volume of his autobiography appeared, “Jahre der Kämpfe” (Years of Struggle). In it, Nolde described himself as spearheading the fight against the purported “Jewish” dominance of the German art world, which as a loner he felt himself exposed to time and again.
In 1937, 1,052 of Nolde’s works in German museums were confiscated. In the anti-art exhibition “Degenerate Art”, Nolde was the most prominently represented of all artists. His paintings were pilloried as decadent art. When it was again suggested that he resign from the Prussian Academy of Art, Nolde refused, making reference to his party membership. In 1938 the artist composed several ingratiating letters, among others to Goebbels, to try to achieve the return of paintings confiscated from his private collection. This succeeded; in December the works were returned to him, and moreover none of his works were shown in later stops of the “Degenerate Art” exhibition.
After a decree by the President of the Reich Chamber of Visual Art against so-called “decadent art” Nolde feared further confiscations, and until April 1941 he stored works with friends. In June Nolde had to present a selection of 4 paintings and 18 watercolours to the Reich Chamber’s “committee for the assessment of inferior artistic products”. In August of 1941 Nolde was excluded from the “Reich Chamber of Visual Art”, and was prohibited from activity in any area of the fine arts either professionally or even part-time. This was accompanied by a prohibition against selling or exhibiting. Nolde lost his right to obtain painting materials, which were becoming ever scarcer. He was worried that this exclusion amounted to a painting prohibition. Nevertheless Nolde did not turn away from the Nazis, but continued to hope for recognition of his art by the Nazi regime, with which he sympathized until 1945.
On November 20, 1941, the Reich Chamber of Visual Art told Nolde that the works submitted for inspection were now confiscated, and reminded him of his duty in future to surrender works to the Chamber before he “passed them on to the public”. According to Nolde’s legal advisor, Hans Fehr, this meant that the “painting prohibition” of the earlier letter had been revoked. From 1942 until 1944 he produced eleven flower paintings and a figure painting. Primarily, however, Nolde painted a great many small-format watercolours which he called the “unpainted pictures”, or “painting sketches”, since he planned to execute them later as oil paintings.
Nolde travelled to Vienna in May / mid-June, 1942. The meeting he had hoped for with Reich Governor Von Schirach did not take place, although the latter promised to speak out in support of Nolde’s art. However, there ensued no revocation or loosening of the measures imposed on Nolde. In February 1944 Nolde, making reference to his party membership, turned to Otto von Kursell, newly appointed director of Berlin’s art school, the ‘Vereinigten Staatsschulen’, and asked him in vain to try to have the occupational ban revoked.
On February 15, 1944, bombs destroyed Nolde’s Berlin apartment; around 3,000 graphic works, watercolours and drawings, as well as works by Paul Klee, Wasily Kandinsky, Oskar Kokoschka, Lyonel Feininger and Ernst Josephson went up in flames.
In August 1946 the denazification committee in Kiel exonerated Nolde despite his party membership, thereby interpreting the Nazi rejection of Nolde’s art as a “rejection of the regime”. Nolde finalized instructions in his will regarding the future foundation. On November 2, 1946, Ada Nolde died. On February 22, 1948, Nolde remarried; to 26 year-old Jolanthe Erdmann, daughter of composer and pianist Eduard Erdmann. Mostly working from the small-format watercolours Nolde created over 100 paintings through 1951, and produced innumerable watercolours until 1955. Nolde received 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). He was represented at the Venice Biennale several times (1950, 1952, 1956), and at the Kassel documenta in 1955.
Emil Nolde died on April 13 in Seebüll. The “Ada and Emil Nolde Foundation Seebüll” he had stipulated in his will was legally recognized under civil law on June 12, 1956. As Nolde specified in the will, Joachim von Lepel, his confidant of many years, became director. The foundation was tasked with managing Emil 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.