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Kirchner, Ernst Ludwig

German, 1880 - 1938


Born in 1880, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner studied architecture and painting before forming the artists' group Die Brücke ("The Bridge") in Dresden on 7 June 1905, with Fritz Bleyl, Erich Heckel, and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff. Kirchner moved to Berlin in 1911, and within two years the group split.

Kirchner worked at a feverish pace, producing art that drew its subject matter from his studio life with artist friends and models, the street and nightclub life of the city, and summer trips to beaches. His works were exhibited and collected from 1905, and by the mid-teens Kirchner had a number of devoted collectors, both private and institutional.

At the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Kirchner joined the German army, but eventually suffered a nervous breakdown. Despite ill health and struggles to recover, he continued to produce major paintings, prints, drawings and sculpture. In 1917 he moved to Davos, Switzerland, and began to include in his work images of rural life and the surrounding Alps. Through the 1920s major exhibitions of his work were held in Berlin, Frankfurt, Dresden, and other cities. In 1931 he was made a member of the Prussian Academy.

Labeled a degenerate artist by the Nazis, Kirchner was asked to resign from the Berlin Academy of Arts in 1933. In 1937, more than 600 of his works were confiscated from German museums and were either destroyed or sold, many ending up in America. In 1938 the psychological suffering caused by the Nazi authorities rejecting him as "un-German," the dispersal and destruction of his works, and the Nazi occupation of Austria so close to his home in Davos led to Kirchner's suicide.

The first public exhibition of Kirchner's work in the United States was at the Armory Show of 1913, the first comprehensive exhibition of modern art in America. U.S. museum acquisitions of Kirchner's work began in 1921 and steadily increased through the next four decades. Kirchner was given his first one-man museum show in the U.S. at the Detroit Institute of Arts in 1937. The National Gallery of Art, Washington, held a monographic exhibition of Kirchner's art in 1992, based on works in the collections of the Gallery and its donors, and then held a major international loan exhibition of Kirchner's art in 2003.


Gordon, Donald E. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1968.

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