Max Beckmann


Max Carl Friedrich Beckmann († December 27, 1950 in New York City) was a German painter, graphic artist, sculptor, author and university lecturer. Beckmann took up the painting of the late 19th century as well as the art historical tradition and formed a style with strong figures, which he opposed to the emerging non-objectivity from 1911.

Beckmann was a member of the Berlin Secession in his early years, but then preferred to style himself as a loner. In particular, he opposed Pablo Picasso and Cubism with an idiosyncratic spatiality. He also developed a narrative and myth-creating style of painting, especially in ten triptychs he created between 1933 and 1950. Beckmann is particularly important as a concise draftsman, portraitist (including numerous self-portraits), and subtle illustrator. He is one of the most important visual artists of 20th century Classical Modernism.

Childhood and youth

Max Beckmann was born as the third child of Antonie and Carl Beckmann. The two siblings Margarethe and Richard were much older. The parents came from the Braunschweig area, where the father had been a miller. In Leipzig, he ran a mill agency. In Falkenburg in Pomerania, today”s Złocieniec, where he lived in his sister”s house, Max Beckmann attended elementary school. From Easter 1894 to November 1894 he was a student of the Sexta of the Royal Gymnasium in Leipzig. At the age of eleven he moved with the family to Braunschweig. Here his father died shortly afterwards. Max Beckmann continued his schooling in Braunschweig and Königslutter. His first surviving self-portrait is dated around 1898, as is the painting of a landscape of Lake Thun. From this time on Beckmann was enthusiastic about foreign cultures. He was a poor student, but early on showed extensive interest in art history. In 1899 he attended a private boarding school in a rectory in Ahlshausen near Gandersheim. The first surviving letters and drawings date from this time. The following winter he ran away from there. In 1900 he passed the entrance examination to the Grand Ducal Saxon School of Art in Weimar after unsuccessfully applying to the Dresden Art Academy. Anecdotal draftsmanship is revealed in Beckmann”s early sheets, as is a sure sense of form and an inclination toward the grotesque.

In 1901, at the modern and liberal Weimar Art School, Beckmann entered the class of the Norwegian portrait and genre painter Carl Frithjof Smith, whom he regarded as his only teacher throughout his life. From him he adopted the strong preliminary drawing and retained it throughout his life. He also met the Frankfurt painter Ugi Battenberg in 1902 and the painter Minna Tube in 1903 and established lifelong friendships with both. A self-portrait with open mouth from this period is considered the first surviving etching. The print is expressive and betrays the influence of Rembrandt van Rijn and Edvard Munch. Beckmann left the academy in 1903 without graduating and went to Paris for a few months, where he occasionally visited the private Académie Colarossi. Here he was particularly impressed by the works of Paul Cézanne. The young artist read and wrote a lot. In Paris, after a brief excursion into Pointillism, he made the preliminary studies for his first chef d”œuvre, the oil painting Young Men by the Sea. He traveled to Amsterdam, The Hague, and to Scheveningen, saw works primarily by Rembrandt, Gerard ter Borch, Frans Hals, and Jan Vermeer, and preferred to paint landscapes. In 1904 he left for a trip to Italy, but it ended in Geneva. He visited Ferdinand Hodler in his studio and on the way saw the then little-known Isenheim Altarpiece in Colmar. In the landscapes and seascapes of the summer, the artist explored the overcoming of Art Nouveau and European Japonism. Some of these works show an independent, cropped composition. After breaking off his stay in Paris and his trip to Italy, Beckmann set up a studio in Berlin-Schöneberg (then Schöneberg near Berlin).

Marriage and starting a family

Beckmann met Minna Tube in 1903 at the art academy in Weimar, which she attended as one of the first women in art. In 1906 the couple married, and in 1907 they moved into a house in Berlin-Hermsdorf, which Minna had designed herself in the New Building style, including the interior design. In 1908 their son Peter was born. Beckmann left Minna in 1925 to marry Mathilde (Quappi) Kaulbach, the daughter of the painter Friedrich August von Kaulbach. After their divorce, Beckmann and Minna Beckmann-Tube remained connected throughout their lives, as evidenced by the frequent correspondence between the two.

Early work

In the summer of 1905, Beckmann worked on his painting Young Men by the Sea (oil on canvas, 148 × 235 cm) on the Danish North Sea. The painting is stylistically influenced by Luca Signorelli and Hans von Marées, with hints of neoclassicism. In 1906 Beckmann received the Villa Romana Prize for this painting from the Deutscher Künstlerbund, which had been founded three years earlier. In the same year he also participated with two works in the 11th exhibition of the Berlin Secession.

He processed his mother”s death in 1906 in two death scenes in the tradition of Edvard Munch. With his wife Minna he traveled to Paris and then for six months to Florence, as a fellow of the Villa Romana. There he painted the portrait of my wife with a pink-purple ground, a portrait of Minna Tube, which today hangs in the Hamburg Kunsthalle. His self-portrait Florence (1907) can also be seen there. In 1907 Beckmann was accepted as a member of the Berlin Secession.

He declined the invitation to join the Dresden artists” group Brücke, but joined the Berlin Secession. The young artist”s will to fame was expressed above all in forced disaster scenes; Impressionism and Neoclassicism combined here to form a brute action painting. He rejected Expressionism. In contrast to his large-scale paintings, Beckmann cultivated interiors and portraiture, especially self-portraiture; these works are sometimes gossamer and atmospherically subtle. Even in those years he also produced hand drawings of old-masterly perfection. Drawing was always to remain the backbone of Beckmann”s art.

In 1908 the artist again traveled to Paris and in the fall became the father of a son, Peter Beckmann, who became known as a cardiologist and gerontologist. The following year he exhibited abroad for the first time and made the momentous acquaintance of the art writer Julius Meier-Graefe, who was a publicist for Beckmann until his death. Beginning in 1909, the artist increasingly fortified his Old Master aspirations in a graphic œuvre as well. In the same year, in the double portrait Max Beckmann and Minna Beckmann-Tube, he set up a monument to his relationship with his colleague and wife in the tradition of representative couple portraits à la Gainsborough. With veristic mass scenarios in colportage-like composition, as in the scene from the sinking of Messina, he placed himself in the Rubens succession, even if the layout and execution of such pictures remained somewhat undeveloped in the young Beckmann.

Max Beckmann wanted to distinguish himself as a neo-conservative counter-model to the radical abstraction of painters such as Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, which was emerging around 1910, as well as the non-objectivity of a Wassily Kandinsky. Like Max Liebermann or Lovis Corinth, he was searching for a modern form of figurative painting.

In 1910 Beckmann was elected to the board of the Berlin Secession; at 26, he was the youngest member there, but soon resigned. Two years earlier he had failed to found an exhibition organization independent of the dealer Paul Cassirer. From then on, he distanced himself from artists” associations, but continued to participate in the major DKB annual exhibitions in Mannheim (where he was a member of the admissions jury), Cologne (1929), Stuttgart (1930), Essen (1931), Königsberg

In March 1912 he formulated: “… because that is the only new thing (in art) that exists. The laws of art are eternal and unchangeable, like the moral law in us.” The sentence comes from a controversy with Franz Marc in the art magazine Pan.

The art dealer Israel Ber Neumann and the publisher Reinhard Piper contributed to Beckmann”s pre-war fame, which reached its peak around 1913, the year Hans Kaiser wrote the first monograph about him. Now the 29-year-old painter resigned from the Secession altogether and co-founded the Free Secession in 1914. He continued to keep his distance from Expressionism, but like it, he was fascinated by the big city in his graphic art and painting. His program was now set: Max Beckmann would never work non-objectively. Rather, he set himself the goal of expanding the heritage of classical art (space, color, traditional genres, mythology, symbolism).

The First World War

“My art gets to eat here,” Beckmann remarked during World War I, which he considered a “national calamity.” The artist did not fire a single shot during the war. “I don”t shoot at the French, I learned so much from them. Nor at the Russians, Dostoevsky is my friend.” In 1914, he served as a volunteer medic on the Eastern Front, and the following year in Flanders and at the Imperial Institute of Hygiene in Strasbourg. His drawings from this period reflect the full harshness of the war. They establish Beckmann”s new, hard-edged style. The artistic turnaround was flanked by the wartime prose of the Letters in War, which appeared while the war was still raging.

In 1915, the artist suffered a nervous breakdown, was released from active military service as a medic, and shortly thereafter settled in Frankfurt-Sachsenhausen. Here he lived in the house of his friend Ugi Battenberg, in what is now the Max Beckmann House at Schweizer Strasse 3, in the immediate vicinity of the Städel Museum, his later workplace. It now became apparent that his personal breakdown was at the same time to be a new beginning. The unsparing drawing style of the war was transferred into graphic art (especially drypoint etching) and painting. In the self-portrait as a nurse, the artist now engages in an unsparing reflection of himself, struggling for the utmost truthfulness, just as in the graphic portfolios such as the lithograph cycle Die Hölle (Hell) he hard-edgedly and virtuously nests together the reality of war and post-war and reveals its substance. Christian iconography is now given the task of depicting the human condition; a painting like Christ and the Sinner from 1917 shows fallen man and the Jesus of practical ethics.

The 1918

Weimar Republic

During the Weimar Republic, Beckmann”s political interests grew, and at the same time he studied secret teachings such as theosophy, which had occupied many artists since the turn of the century. He sharply grasped the physiognomies of his time, but did not seek realism here, but what he called transcendent objectivity. Famous pictures of Frankfurt, such as that of the Börneplatz Synagogue or the Eiserner Steg with ice floating on the Main, were created during this period. Beckmann was closely involved in the intellectual life of his time through his friendships with the writer Benno Reifenberg, with Heinrich Simon, the editor-in-chief of the Frankfurter Zeitung, through his connections with the art dealer Günther Franke, the actor Heinrich George and fellow artists such as Alfred Kubin. He wrote dramas and poems that proved worth performing and reading after his death. In addition to his extensive graphic work, he again produced self-portraits that made the sitter a chronicler not only of himself, but of his era.

From 1922 Beckmann was sponsored by Lilly von Mallinckrodt-Schnitzler, who collected his paintings and made him better known socially. In 1924 Beckmann met the young Mathilde Kaulbach, daughter of Friedrich August von Kaulbach, in Vienna. He separated from Minna Tube and from then on made his new wife, under her Viennese nickname Quappi, one of the most painted and drawn women in art history. Travels to Italy, Nice and Paris, in-depth studies of Gnostic, ancient Indian and theosophical teachings loosened and expanded his artistic style. At the same time, the colorfulness of his paintings increased. From 1925 on, he led a master studio at the art school of the Städel Museum in Frankfurt. His students included Theo Garve, Léo Maillet, and Marie-Louise von Motesiczky. Paintings such as Double Portrait Carnival or Italian Fantasy reflect the calming of political conditions as well as the evil forebodings of an imminent end to the Golden Age. In the spectacular painting Galleria Umberto, the artist forebodes Mussolini”s death as early as 1925. Beckmann”s biographer Stephan Reimertz speaks of the artist”s “foreface.” At the height of the Weimar Republic, Beckmann once again presented himself as a Stresemann-German in a manner befitting the state. In 1927, he painted the self-portrait in a tuxedo and wrote an essay entitled Der Künstler im Staat (The Artist in the State). Beckmann”s pronounced self-confidence was generally known.

In 1928, his fame in Germany reached its zenith with the Reichsehrenpreis Deutscher Kunst and a first comprehensive Beckmann retrospective at the Kunsthalle Mannheim. His art now displays grandiose perfection of form; it also betrays the sophisticated eroticist Beckmann always wanted to be. This role is one of the many masks behind which the anxious and sensitive artist hid. At the DKB anniversary exhibition (25 years of the Deutscher Künstlerbund) in 1929 in the Cologne Staatenhaus am Rheinpark, five oil paintings by Max Beckmann were on display. In 1930, the Venice Biennale showed six paintings by Beckmann, who was also represented that year at the annual exhibition of the Prague Secession. At the same time, the artist was fiercely attacked by the National Socialist press. In Paris, he briefly found some attention among intellectuals who sought to break away from both Surrealism and the dominance of Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. In 1932, the Berlin National Gallery established a Beckmann room, the so-called New Department of the Berlin National Gallery in the Kronprinzenpalais. The artist began the first of ten triptychs that year. Started under the name Departure, he finished it years later as Departure.

National Socialism and Emigration

In April 1933 Beckmann was summarily dismissed from his professorship at the Frankfurt Städelschule. His students, as well as other young artists influenced by Beckmann, such as the painter Joseph Mader, no longer had the opportunity to be active artistically; later one spoke of a lost generation. Some of their works were burned by the Nazis on the Römerberg. The Beckmann Hall in the Kronprinzenpalais was used for other purposes. Max Beckmann was one of the most hated artists for the Nazis. He was prominently featured in the “Degenerate Art” exhibitions that toured throughout Germany.

Beckmann left Frankfurt and lived in Berlin until his emigration. He met the writer Stephan Lackner, who remained a loyal friend, collector and interpreter. During this time Beckmann also painted many anecdotal pictures such as Ochsenstall and Reise auf dem Fisch, self-portraits such as that with a black cap or with the glass ball, which reflected and attempted to mask the uncertainty of his situation. He also now began sculptural work, creating the bronze Man in the Dark in 1934, manifesting his position as an undesirable artist, and Adam and Eve in 1936, in which Adam holds a tiny Eve in his right hand. The original version in plaster is in the Hamburg Kunsthalle. In total, eight sculptures were created by him.

Until the closing of the last DKB annual exhibition in 1936 at the Hamburg Kunstverein – his exhibition contribution Die Kaimauer (1936, oil on canvas, 41 × 80.5 cm) is now owned by the Städel Museum in Frankfurt – Beckmann was a member of the Deutscher Künstlerbund, which he had already joined in 1906. 21 of Beckmann”s works were shown in the 1937 exhibition “Degenerate Art” in the Hofarkaden in Munich, and more than 650 “degenerate” Beckmann works were confiscated from German museums, including the lost painting Der Strand (Am Lido) from 1927.

After the radio broadcast of Hitler”s speech at the opening of the simultaneous Great German Art Exhibition in Munich, Max Beckmann left Germany forever. In self-imposed exile Amsterdam, he painted self-portraits such as The Liberated, in which he breaks chains. Deeply enigmatic paintings and other triptychs with partly mythological themes characterize his exile work.

On June 21, 1938, Beckmann expressed himself in a programmatic speech entitled “On My Painting” at the New Burlington Galleries in London:

Since 1939 Beckmann applied for a visa to the United States. His efforts to leave the country failed, however, and he was forced to remain in Amsterdam throughout the war. In May 1940, the occupation of the Netherlands by the German Wehrmacht took place. As a result, he burned his diaries since 1925. Beckmann had to undergo a muster by the German Wehrmacht in 1942, but he was declared unfit, which led to his collapse. He maintained contacts with German resistance circles, including around Gisèle van Waterschoot van der Gracht and Wolfgang Frommel in Amsterdam.

Last years

It was not until the summer of 1947 that Max and Mathilde Beckmann received visas for the USA. From the end of September, the artist taught at the Art School of Washington University in St. Louis. Among his American students were Walter Barker and Jack Bice. In May 1948, the Saint Louis Art Museum presented a major Beckmann retrospective, at the opening of which he was present. Collector Morton D. May (1914-1983) began building his Beckmann collection that year, now the most extensive in the world, after attending an exhibition at Curt Valentin”s Buchholz Gallery. He bequeathed the collection to the Saint Louis Art Museum.

In addition to traveling across the U.S. and teaching in Boulder (Colorado) and Carmel (California), Max Beckmann accepted a professorship for painting and drawing at the Art School of the Brooklyn Museum in New York at the end of 1949. He found it increasingly difficult to assert his art against non-objective painting, which had become popular. On December 27, 1950, Max Beckmann died of a heart attack in the middle of the street in Manhattan (Central Park West, 61st St.). He had completed the ninth triptych Argonauts a few hours before his death, and his tenth triptych Ballet Rehearsal remained unfinished.

Max Beckmann created in five decades about 850 (843 according to the 2021 published catalog raisonné of the Hamburg Kunsthalle) oil paintings, hundreds of drawings, illustrations, sketches and designs. Since World War I, almost 400 lithographs, etchings and woodcuts and from the mid-1930s until the last year of his life, eight bronze sculptures.

Max Beckmann on the art market

Max Beckmann”s works fetch very high prices. In 2001, his Self-Portrait with Horn from the private collection of Stephan Lackner was auctioned in New York for 45 million marks. Ronald Lauder bought it for his New Gallery New York.His painting View of Suburbs by the Sea near Marseille from 1937 was auctioned in November 2009 for 2.6 million euros; it was thus the most expensive German painting of the economically difficult auction year 2009.In 2017, his painting Hell of the Birds was auctioned for 40.8 million euros. Never before has so much been paid for a work of German Expressionist art. Beckmann”s Female Head in Blue and Gray (this is the highest sum ever offered for a work of art at auction in Germany.

Testimonies of contemporary artists

In Weltkunst No. 179 in January 2021, opinions on Beckmann”s work are described by Elvira Bach, Cecily Brown, Markus Lüpertz, and Neo Rauch, for example. The occasion for this was the publication of the digital catalog raisonné of the Hamburger Kunsthalle. Elvira Bach elaborated that only a few artists had inspired her, but Max Beckmann had been one of them. “Above all, his strong contours influenced my art in the eighties.” Cecily Brown said Beckmann had always been important to her. “The boldness of his vision and its realization is almost unmatched in 20th century art. I”ve looked closely at everything in his work and am as influenced by his drawings and prints as I am by his painting.” Markus Lüpertz quoted a poem from his book Two Candles Shine. Für Max Beckmann from 2006. Neo Rauch formulated, “His work has such an overwhelming effect because he allowed the night side of human existence, the sphere of dreams, to penetrate deep into everyday life.”

Digital catalog raisonné of the Hamburger Kunsthalle

In December 2020, in the 70th year of Beckmann”s death, the Kunsthalle Hamburg acquired his self-portrait Florence (1907), which it had already owned on loan since 1991, for 4 million euros from his estate. It was the most expensive painting the Kunsthalle had ever acquired, it said. The museum houses one of the world”s most important Max Beckmann holdings, with some 25 paintings and sculptures and 250 works on paper. The occasion was the exhibition of the house Max Beckmann. male-female, which was closed at the time due to the Corona pandemic, but was extended until March 14. In January 2021, the Kunsthalle put his complete catalog raisonné online, free to read, for anyone interested. On behalf of the Kaldewei Cultural Foundation, Anja Tiedemann expanded, updated, and supplemented the 1976 catalog raisonné of Erhard and Barbara Göpel.

Max Beckmann at the Städel Museum

The Städelsches Kunstinstitut in Frankfurt am Main also has an extensive Beckmann collection. In October 2020, it was able to acquire the Self-Portrait with Champagne Glass (1919) for an undisclosed price, which it also already had on loan. It is part of the exhibition Städel”s Beckmann. Beckmann”s Städel, which focuses on the museum”s Beckmann collection. In this special presentation, the Städel devotes selected paintings, works on paper, and documentary material to its Beckmann holdings and the artist”s Frankfurt years. The focus is on the Self-Portrait with Champagne Glass. Due to the Corona pandemic, the exhibition has been extended until August 29, 2021. Since Beckmann”s works are no longer subject to copyright from the beginning of 2021, the museum is making the works in its collection available for free copying, and commercial use is also permitted. The free use applies to all of the museum”s public domain works, according to an Aug. 20, 2020, press release.

Schwabing Art Find

Beckmann”s gouache Löwenbändiger from 1930 became known in connection with the Schwabing Art Find in 2012. In late summer 2011, Cornelius Gurlitt had it auctioned off by the Lempertz auction house in Cologne as an inheritance from his father, the art dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt; it sold for €871,200. Before the auction, it was determined that the painting came from the estate of Jewish art dealer and collector Alfred Flechtheim. Cornelius Gurlitt previously reached a settlement with Flechtheim”s heirs to avoid restitution claims. It is believed that he left half of the sale price to the heirs.

Monographs on the complete works

sorted by year of publication

Monographs on individual works, cycles and groups of works

Exhibition catalogs


  1. Max Beckmann
  2. Max Beckmann
Ads Blocker Image Powered by Code Help Pro

Ads Blocker Detected!!!

We have detected that you are using extensions to block ads. Please support us by disabling these ads blocker.