Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
Biography of German Expressionist Painter, Die Brucke Group.

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Portrait of Gerda (1914)
Van der Heydt Museum, Wuppertal.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938)


Die Brucke German Expressionist Group (1905-13)
World War I
Postwar Era (1920-38)
Kirchner the Artist

NOTE: For analysis of works by German Expressionists like Kirchner,
please see: Analysis of Modern Paintings (1800-2000).

Marzella (1909-10)
Moderna Museet, Stockholm.

For more about types of
fine art printing, used by
artists like Kirchner, including
woodcuts, and lithography, see:
Printmaking: History, Types.


One of the greatest Expressionist painters, the German artist Ernst Kirchner was an important member of the Die Brucke art group, a key movement which would lead to the foundation of German Expressionism in the 20th century. He was prone to mental breakdowns, exacerbated by war experiences, which eventually lead to his suicide at the age of 58. Best known for his genre painting of Berlin street scenes and colourful female nudes, his most notable works include: Young Girl Under a Japanese Parasol (1909, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Dusseldorf); Marzella (1909-10, Moderna Museet, Stockholm); Franzi in front of a Carved Chair (1910, Thyssen-Bornemizsa, Madrid); Self-Portrait with Model (1910, Kunsthalle, Hamburg); Group of Artists (1912, Karl Ernst Osthaus Museum, Hagen); Five Women in the Street (1913, Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne); Berlin Street Scene, (1913, Brucke Museum, Berlin); Semi-Nude Woman with Hat (1911, Private Collection); and Self-Portrait as a Soldier (1915, Allen Memorial Art Museum, Ohio). He also produced several examples of poster art, influenced by German Gothic art (woodcuts) and African sculpture, exemplified by Die Brucke Poster (1910). Greatly inspired by Primitivism, Kirchner is now regarded as one of the great 20th century painters of the World War I period.

Franzi in front of a Carved Chair (1910)
Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid.

For a list of painters like
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, see:
Modern Artists.

Best Artists of All Time.
For the greatest portraitists
see: Best Portrait Artists.
For the greatest genre-painting, see:
Best Genre Painters.


Born in Aschaffenburg, Germany his family settled in Chemitz in 1890. Between 1901-1905 he studied Architecture at the Dresden Technische Hochschule, followed by perspective drawing and the history of art at the Konigliche Technische Hochschule in Munich (a private experimental art school established by the painter Wilhelm von Debschitz and sculptor Hermann Obrist). Here, he studied the Old Masters of the Renaissance as well as several Impressionist painters.

Die Brucke German Expressionist Group (1905-13)

In 1905, along with Fritz Bleyl, Erich Heckel and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, he established Die Brucke (The Bridge) art group. Later members were Max Pechstein (1881-1955), Emil Nolde (1867-1956) and Otto Mueller (1874-1930). The aim of the movement was to act as a 'bridge' between past and present art, and to create a new mode of artistic expression. They drew on Old Masters from the Northern Renaissance era like Albrecht Durer, Matthias Grünewald and Lucas Cranach the Elder, and looked to contemporary international movements including Primitivism. They revived old media, particularly woodcut prints (and invented the printmaking technique of linocut). Their painting was emotionally charged, often containing violent imagery and powerful use of colour. Initially they produced mostly city scenes, but gradually this switched to nudes. Paintings from his early period include Reclining Nude With Pipe, 1909; Girl under a Japanese Parasol, 1909 and Self-Portrait with a Model, 1910. In 1911 Kirchner moved to Berlin, and founded the MUIM-Institut with Max Pechstein (Moderner Unterricht im Malen - Modern Teaching of Painting), however the school closed one year later due to lack of funds.


Paintings from this period include Five Bathers by a Lake, 1911; Negro Dance, 1911; Milly Sleeping, 1911; Female Nude with Hat, 1911; Toilette, Woman in front of a mirror, 1911; Two women with a Washbasin, 1913 and Five Woman in the Street, 1913. In 1913, he wrote the Chronicle of the Brucke, which caused in-fighting between the group and led to its collapse.

World War I

At the outbreak of World War I, he volunteered to go to the front, but was discharged within a year because of a nervous collapse. He spent the following two years in a sanatorium in Switzerland, only to be hit by a car in 1917 sustaining severe injuries. He depicted himself in his painting Self-Portrait as a Soldier, 1915 with an amputated hand (this did not happen). In 1918 he moved to a farmhouse in Davos, Switzerland, after which he produced mainly landscapes. He wrote to a friend at the time, 'Here one learns how to see further and go deeper than in 'modern' life, which is generally so very much more superficial despite its wealth of outer forms.'

Postwar Era (1920-38)

The 1920s were a successful decade for Kirchner, a significant exhibition of his works took place at an art gallery in Basel, which helped establish his reputation as a key figure in the expressionist movement. A group of Swiss artists (painters Paul Camenisch, Hermann Scherer and Albert Muller) asked him to join their new art group: The Association of Rot-Blaue (Red and Blue).

In 1931 Kirchner became a member of the Prussian Academy of Arts. When the Nazis came to power in Germany, Kirchner's oil paintings - like those of many other famous painters including Wassily Kandinsky (1844-1944), August Macke (1887-1914), Alexei von Jawlensky (1864-1941), Paul Klee (1879-1940), Franz Marc (1880-1916), Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980), Otto Dix (1891-1969), Max Beckmann (1884-1950), Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948) and Marc Chagall (1887-1985) - were labelled as 'degenerate' art and removed from public exhibit. The distress this caused him, was allegedly one of the causes of his suicide in 1938.

For more about Kirchner's contribution to early expressionism, see: History of Expressionist Painting (c.1880-1930).

Kirchner The Artist

Like Modigliani, Kirchner was a true bohemian. His studio was a place where social conventions were overthrown, where there was frequent nudity and casual love-making. However, this didn't stop him from creating some of the greatest 20th century paintings which helped to define German Expressionism. Rather than using professional models, he chose models from his own neighbourhood and social circle. His impact on modern art in the 20th century should not be underestimated. Along with members of the Blue Rider Group, Die Brucke was fundamental to the establishment of the school of Expressionism. The English art movement, Stuckism, established in 1999, based its principles of using paint for communicating emotion on early German Expressionism. In 1992, The National Gallery of Art in Washington held a major Kirchner exhibition, and in 2006 one of his greatest expressionist paintings - Street Scene, Berlin sold for $38 million.

Today, paintings by Kirchner hang in the best art museums across the world.

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