Emil Nolde

gigatos | February 18, 2022


Emil Nolde († April 13, 1956 in Seebüll) was one of the leading Expressionist painters. He is one of the great watercolorists in the art of the 20th century and known for his expressive choice of colors. Although ostracized as a “degenerate artist”, he was a racist, anti-Semite and staunch supporter of National Socialism.

Youth years and education

Emil Nolde was born the fourth of five children in a farming family. His birthplace in the northern part of the province of Schleswig-Holstein belonged to Prussia and thus to the German Reich until 1920. Nolde belonged to the German ethnic group of the Nordschleswiger. After the referendum in Schleswig in 1920, in which North Schleswig went to Denmark, Nolde took Danish citizenship and thus renounced German. He had three older brothers and a younger sister. His father was a North Frisian from the Niebüll area; he spoke North Frisian, his mother spoke South Jutish (a dialect of Danish). Emil Nolde attended the German school in Buhrkall. His youthful years on his parents” farm in Nolde were marked by hard work and a relatively meager life.

From 1884 to 1888, at his father”s insistence, he trained as a carver and draftsman at the School of Arts and Crafts in Flensburg (now Museumsberg Flensburg). There he was involved in the restoration of the Brüggemann altar. He did not acquire an apprenticeship diploma. He then worked for various furniture factories, including in Munich, Karlsruhe and Berlin. In 1892 he took up a position at the Gewerbemuseum in St. Gallen as a teacher of industrial and ornamental design drawing, which was terminated in 1898. During this time he met Hans Fehr, with whom he remained associated for a long time. He then worked initially on a series of landscape watercolors and drawings of mountain farmers. Nolde eventually became known for small colored drawings of the Swiss mountains. He had postcards of these works printed, which allowed him to live as a freelance artist.

He went to Munich, but was rejected by the academy and initially began studying at Adolf Hölzel”s private painting school in Dachau before traveling to Paris via Amsterdam in the fall of 1899 with the painter Emmi Walther and enrolling at the Académie Julian. In 1900 he rented a studio in Copenhagen. In 1902 he married the 23-year-old Danish actress Ada Vilstrup (1879-1946) there. Between 1903 and 1916 they lived there in the summer in a fisherman”s house in Sjellerupskov near Guderup. A wooden shack directly on the beach served as their studio.


From 1902 Nolde named himself after his native village in northern Schleswig. Around 1903 he was still painting “lyrical” landscapes. He became a member of the Schleswig-Holstein Art Cooperative and participated in five exhibitions between 1903 and 1912. In 1904 he was represented at the annual exhibition at the Flensburg Museum with the paintings In der Räuberstube and Sommernacht. In 1905 Ada and Emil Nolde traveled to Sicily and Ischia, but the painter could not cope with the bright light of the south. His flower and garden paintings of Alsen, which increasingly relied on color, drew the attention of the Brücke artists” group. After initial hesitation, Nolde accepted the invitation to join in 1906. This brought him into contact with much younger artists such as Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Fritz Bleyl, Erich Heckel and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff. In Berlin he also met Edvard Munch. Nolde ended his active membership in the Brücke in 1907, a dispute with Schmidt-Rottluff being instrumental. Despite this brief period, Nolde introduced etching as another representational technique to the community, arranged contacts with the Hamburg collector and art patron Gustav Schiefler, and ensured the group”s notoriety and economic success by introducing paid “passive memberships” with the mailing of original prints as “annual gifts.” Nolde himself participated in eight exhibitions of the group in 25 locations during his membership, which lasted only 21 months.

In 1909 Nolde became a member of the Berlin Secession. When its jury, with the participation of Max Liebermann, rejected works by Georg Tappert and many mostly Expressionist artists the following year, the Berlin Secession broke up. On Tappert”s initiative, followed by Max Pechstein and other artists, including Nolde, the New Secession was formed. It opened its first exhibition on May 15 under the title “Rejected by the Berlin Secession 1910”.

Now Nolde”s first religious pictures were created: Last Supper, Pentecost and Mockery. Between 1910 and 1912 he had his first successes with his own exhibitions in Hamburg, Essen and Hagen. Pictures of nightlife in Berlin, where he regularly spent the winter months with his wife Ada, theater drawings, mask still lifes, 20 Autumn Seas, the nine-part The Life of Christ were created. He also repeatedly visited the Berlin Museum für Völkerkunde, where he made numerous sketches of objects from overseas between 1910 and 1912. From the fall of 1913 until the end of August 1914, he took part in the Medical-Demographic German New Guinea Expedition of the Reichskolonialamt with his wife. At that time Nolde showed himself to be a self-confessed cosmopolitan artist, fascinated by the exotic strength of Africa, Central America, and Southeast Asia. In 1916 he moved to the small farmhouse Utenwarf (⊙54.9066558.788232) on the west coast near Tønder and the Vidå (German Wiedau). He disliked the heated disputes over the German-Danish border demarcation after World War I, and although he felt German, Nolde exercised his right to take Danish citizenship when his birthplace became part of Denmark after the referendum in Schleswig in 1920. Until the end of his life, he retained Danish citizenship, as did his wife, but throughout his life he saw himself as a member of the German-speaking minority in Northern Schleswig.


In 1889 Nolde came to the imperial capital for the first time and stayed for two years, during which he worked as a draftsman and modeller in various firms. From the winter of 1904


It was only when the land around Utenwarf was increasingly developed and drained that he and his wife moved to the German side of the border, as the landscape there reminded him of his home near Nolde. In 1926, the couple purchased an empty dwelling mound near Neukirchen in the Wiedingharde district of what was then called Südtondern, which they named Seebüll and on which the painter”s home and studio of the same name was built by 1930. At first they lived in the neighboring farmhouse “Seebüllhof”, which they had acquired together with the dwelling mound and the surrounding pasture land. The move to the newly built house “Seebüll” took place in 1930. The residential building is a two-story cube with a flat roof, to which single-story annexes are attached over a triangular ground plan. In 1937, a studio building with a picture hall was added to the residential building. The building was constructed of brick according to Emil Nolde”s designs with the assistance of his architect friend Georg Rieve. The colorfulness of the interior of the house corresponds with the strong colors of the garden plants.

Next to the house Ada and Emil Nolde laid out a garden, the paths of which are in the form of the initials E and A. The garden includes two buildings: a 1935

On the occasion of his 60th birthday, an anniversary exhibition was dedicated to him in Dresden in 1927.

Under National Socialism

Nolde was convinced early on that “Germanic art” was far superior to all others. In August 1934, he testified that he belonged to the Fuehrer”s entourage by signing the call of the cultural workers. In 1934, he became a member of one of the various National Socialist parties in Northern Schleswig, the National Socialist Working Group of Northern Schleswig (NSAN). The competing National Socialist parties were merged in 1935 to form the NSDAP-Nordschleswig (NSDAP-N) as a result of efforts by Hinrich Lohse, the Gauleiter in Schleswig-Holstein.

During his participation in the German New Guinea expedition of 1913

Nolde was also anti-Semitic, as can be seen from many documents – such as the first two volumes of his autobiography, Das eigene Leben (1930) and Jahre der Kämpfe (1934), which cover the years from 1867 to 1914. In the original editions of the two volumes, many nationalistic, racist, and anti-Semitic statements by Nolde can be found. He polemicized against Jewish art dealers such as Paul Cassirer and painters such as Max Liebermann. In May 1933, Nolde denounced his competitor Max Pechstein as a supposed “Jew” to an official of the Ministry of Propaganda simply because of his name. Although Pechstein pointed out that this allegation was not true, but could be very dangerous to him (= Pechstein) and his family, Nolde refused to correct the ministry. In the summer of 1933, Nolde worked out a “de-Jewification plan”, a territorial “solution” with the goal of resettling the Jews. He also wanted to present this plan to Hitler. As early as 1911, he had written to a patron that “painter Jews” had spread throughout the country, “much like the sponge growth here under the red-painted floor of our little parlor.” He also believed that the “power of the Jews” had been “underestimated” by Germany.

Another statement was directed at Rosa Schapire, an art historian who had promoted the still unknown artist through lectures and exhibition reports:

At the beginning of the National Socialist era, some high-ranking officials of the Nazi regime appreciated his art and his attitude toward art policy. For example, Joseph Goebbels and Albert Speer were initially patrons of Nolde, and in 1933 the Nazi Student Union held an exhibition of his works.The larger part of the Nazi leadership, on the other hand, tried to discriminate against Nolde artistically and economically early on – including Alfred Rosenberg and Adolf Hitler himself. For example, his paintings Life of Christ were shown in the “Degenerate Art” exhibition in 1937. Further paintings were confiscated and forcibly sold in subsequent actions. Nolde apparently did not want to admit this at first and seemed surprised when his works were defamed as “degenerate art”. He felt misunderstood and believed in mistakes made by subordinate persons and departments. He did not distance himself from National Socialist cultural policy, but tried to convince the National Socialists that he had always thought and lived in accordance with the movement”s theses and had also expressed himself in this way. For example, on July 2, 1938, Nolde wrote in a letter to Goebbels that he saw himself “as almost the only German artist in the open struggle against the alienation of German art,” and pointed out that he had become a member of the NSDAP Nordschleswig immediately after its founding.

Under these auspices, the Reich Chamber of Fine Arts issued the “Order on the Distribution of Inferior Art Products” on October 1, 1940. This was ostensibly directed against cheap and mass-produced art reproductions and so-called “kitsch” in order to protect the market for true artists. Because of these omens, the Noldes initially assumed that the ordinance would not affect them. Nevertheless, the Reich Chamber of Fine Arts inquired about information on sales and exhibitions and requested images of works from 1938 to 1940. In this situation, the Noldes made use of their contacts with high-ranking National Socialists. Thus, they asked Heinrich Hansen, one of the highest-ranking officials in the Reich Ministry for Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda, for assistance. In February 1941, the Reich Chamber again asked for illustrations. In the same month, Hans Herbert Schweitzer had a painting and watercolors by Nolde confiscated from Alex Vömel”s gallery in Düsseldorf, which were sent to Berlin for appraisal. The Security Service of the Reichsführer SS also exerted increased pressure on the Reich Chamber because of the continued availability of “degenerate” works of art. On August 23, 1941, Nolde received Adolf Ziegler”s letter expelling him from the Reich Chamber of Fine Arts for “lack of reliability.”

This exclusion, however, did not mean a “ban on painting,” as it was rumored, especially after the end of World War II, but merely a ban on the purchase of all artist supplies such as oil paints, canvas, brushes, and on sales, exhibitions, and reproductions of his works. Nolde was able to continue painting privately, and lawyers he consulted also said that donations to friends would probably not have meant circumventing the ban. In order to be able to distribute his works in public again, he would always have had to submit them to the “Committee for the Evaluation of Inferior Art Products”. The term “painting ban” can only be found for the period of National Socialism in a single letter from Ada Nolde. Only after the war was the occupational ban transformed into a painting ban, so that Nolde could emphasize his own victim role. In the context of the rehabilitation of Expressionism, this narrative was taken up and carried forward by many authors. It was in this context that the concept of the so-called unpainted pictures and their reception history emerged. Nolde”s victim story was received in the character of the painter Max Ludwig Nansen in Siegfried Lenz”s novel Deutschstunde (1968). The Noldes reproduced Ziegler”s letter of exclusion and circulated it among supporters. These reacted by subsequently assisting him in obtaining material. For example, Otto Andreas Schreiber regularly sent him paints. Nolde”s confidence in National Socialism was never completely destroyed, despite all his experiences of persecution. In 1942, although a meeting with Baldur von Schirach in Vienna did not materialize, the latter took in some of his works and promised to intercede on the artist”s behalf. And as late as 1943 he was still thinking about painting an SA man. In the fall of 1944, Nolde”s apartment in Berlin-Dahlem was destroyed in an air raid.

It can be stated that Nolde”s political conviction was so strong that the personal experience of being set back by the Reichskunstkammer could not shake his party loyalty.

Transfiguration as a victim

Nolde ensured that the blatantly anti-Semitic passages of his autobiography were deleted in the editions after 1945; all four volumes of the memoirs were published in this amended form up to and including 2008. He also declared in 1946 in the context of denazification, with a maximum of about RM 52,000, significantly lower income during the Third Reich than he had declared himself in his tax return (RM 80,000). Accordingly, Nolde was classified as not burdened. Nolde”s occupational ban was reshaped into a ban on painting. Because documents such as, above all, the original version of Nolde”s autobiographical texts, which provided information about the actual events in the Third Reich, were not initially available, the narrative of Nolde”s victim role was taken up and carried on in good faith by many authors in the context of the rehabilitation of Expressionism. Shortly before his death, Nolde filed a – rejected – application for compensation, citing confiscations and forced sales of his works.

The late years

On November 2, 1946, Nolde”s first wife died; two years later he married Jolanthe Erdmann († June 13, 2010 in Heidelberg), the daughter of the composer and pianist Eduard Erdmann. Until 1951 Nolde painted more than 100 paintings and – increasingly limited by his Parkinson”s disease – until 1956 many watercolors. Emil Nolde died on April 13, 1956 in Seebüll, where he found his final resting place next to his first wife Ada in the crypt in the garden.


The estate and artistic estate became the initial assets of the Seebüll Ada and Emil Nolde Foundation, which built the Nolde Museum in the painter”s former home and studio. The foundation presents about 160 works by Nolde there in annually changing exhibitions. In the painter”s former studio, his most important religious work – the nine-part altarpiece The Life of Christ from 1911

From 2007 to March 2014, there was a branch of the foundation at Jägerstraße 54

Now that it has become accepted that Nolde was both an important painter and an avowed racist and National Socialist, his work will be presented in this context in the future, according to current research. “Emil Nolde”s famous flower paintings could not be separated from his blood-and-soil ideology, Düsseldorf museum director Felix Krämer told the Dlf. Nolde”s paintings in the Chancellery were not a good choice, he added.”

“But I think what we have to be aware of with Nolde is when we look at the pictures: Ideology does not always function only on the surface, and of course such a picture, such a depiction of flowers, is at first glance harmless. But if you then know about his idea of blood and soil, idea of homeland, idea of race, then I think you start thinking.”

While the Nolde Foundation Seebüll had played an important role in the construction of the public image of Nolde for decades after his death and, among other things, purged new editions of his memoirs of the coarsest anti-Semitic passages and also withheld problematic statements in the correspondence preserved in the estate, this has changed fundamentally under the new management. In the future, Nolde and his art are to be presented free of myths and legends, with all their contradictions,” says director Christian Ring, underlining the new attitude.

Emil Nolde”s life during the period of the “painting ban” from 1941 is reflected in the novel Deutschstunde by Siegfried Lenz (1968). The novel was filmed for television in 1971 and for cinema in 2019. The film portrait Träume am Meer – Der Maler Emil Nolde, directed by Wilfried Hauke, was made in 2006. In the book Nolde and I. Ein Südseetraum Hans Christoph Buch narrated Nolde”s journey to the South Seas in 2013.

A 1989 ruling by the Federal Court of Justice plays a role in commentaries on post-mortem personality rights. A collector submitted two watercolors allegedly signed by him to the estate foundation of Emil Nolde for appraisal. The foundation recognized the forgeries and refused to hand over the watercolors to the collector, who then sued. The foundation wanted to destroy the paintings or remove what it considered to be forged signatures or add an inscription Fälschung. This was rejected by the BGH in the final instance. In particular, according to the ruling of the BGH, the post-mortem protection of personality or the right to a name does not come into question for the defendant”s claim. In its reasoning, the court conceded a protection of personality existing even 33 years after the death of the painter with regard to his work and a right to possible removal of the signature if it was a forgery, which, however, was not the subject of the defendant”s claims (no demand for the plaintiff”s consent to removal of the signature). Commentator Haimo Schack particularly emphasized the long after-effect of the right of personality established in the judgment for this particular case, which was granted in the case of Emil Nolde as a renowned representative of German Expressionism. According to the judgment, the imputed forgery was fundamentally capable of sustainably distorting the overall artistic image.


The Hamburg judge and art collector Gustav Schiefler compiled the first two-volume catalog of Nolde”s graphic work.



  1. Emil Nolde
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