Emil Nolde (1867-1956) was the son of a peasant family living in the coastal Schleswig area of Germany (near the Danish border). He trained as a woodcarver and at age 21 moved to Munich to work carving ornamental furniture moldings. He taught crafts for six years at the Museum of Industry and Trade in St. Gallen, Switzerland, where he began to paint in a conservative style. He began to study art full time in 1898, at age 31, which took him back to Munich and briefly to Paris and Copenhagen, where he discovered the art of Vincent Van Gogh. In 1906 his evolving expressionist style of painting earned him membership in Die Brücke in Dresden and later the "New Secession" in Berlin, but his aloof and irritable personality caused a break with both groups within a year or two. He withdrew to Schleswig during 1909-12 to paint religious themes and the life of Christ, pictures that were rejected in Berlin and Brussels. He then traveled extensively within Germany, and went abroad with a colonial ethnographic expedition through Russia and the Far East to New Guinea (1913-14), which introduced him to "primitive" art, followed by a trip to Italy and Spain, where he saw many works by the Spanish painter Francisco de Goya. However, these many art influences left little trace in his painting; he had already settled into brutally crude drawing charged with intense color, style features that remained unchanged for the rest of his life. He was also working as frequently in watercolors as in oils. He returned to the Schleswig area in 1921, then moved permanently to an isolated farm near Seebüll in 1926; here he remained for most of the rest of his life, living with his wife almost as a hermit (with occasional visits to an apartment he kept in Berlin), and painting continually in landscapes, seascapes, animal studies and botanicals. Toward the end of the 1930's his productivity began to decline, as his reception continued to be unfavorable. A deeply religious man, Nolde became an ardent member of the Nazi Party after the National Socialists came to power in 1934, only to witness his paintings labeled "degenerate art" (entartete Kunst) in the infamous 1937 exhibition of seized German museum holdings, and in 1941 he was forbidden by the Third Reich from pursuing any fine arts activities. He responded by retiring to his farm, working secretively in a small, half concealed room to paint over 1300 small studies — his "unpainted paintings." These were often less than 25x15cm in size, and were painted entirely with watercolors and ink, which were compact and could be easily hidden if necessary. Some of these were translated into oil paintings in the decade between the end of World War II and Nolde's death at age 89.



The essence of Nolde's style lies in his intense and graceless artistic personality. This Portrait of a Man (1926, 41x28cm), made after his return to north Germany, conveys some of the main traits. The drawing is limited to thick strokes of dark paint, and although in this example Nolde has taken care with the delineation of the sitter's character, in most paintings his drawing is typically crude and clumsy, line stylized caricature or as indications of mass or weight rather than the graceful outline of form. The portrait head is given weight by broad areas of black and muted violet, infused wet in wet with areas of green or brown, all the colors contrasted with bright areas of untouched paper. Paint is laid down with brushstrokes that are alternately juicy and runny or dry and scratchy. Nolde often seems to carve out a crude, primitive icon for his subject — a peasant drawing of a person or religious figure — then to pour into it a raw brew of expressionist color, in the way Frankenstein filled his monster with lightning. The effect at first encounter is shocking and disorienting, even for viewers today: but after this initial reaction the color experience often becomes more nuanced and allusive.

Nolde's technical control and emotional intensity is most evident in his many landscapes, which include the passionate series of watercolors painted during his excursion to New Guinea and the many dramatic landscapes painted during his secluded years at Seebüll. Marshy Landscape Under the Evening Sky (c.1943, 17x23cm) illustrates the dark atmosphere of these later paintings, which drew inspiration from the chill, windraked and spare landscape along the North Sea coast. Nolde owned a large stock of slightly absorbent Japanese papers, in a variety of weights from thin to very heavy, which permitted him a range of wash effects similar to those possible with hot pressed papers. Jolanthe Nolde described how he cut irregular smaller rectangles by hand from the large sheets, and kept 17 separate premixed colors always ready in small aluminum cups, each cup with its own watercolor brush, the tufts bent from resting continually in the cups. He charged the surface of the paper with juicy layers of paint, the brushes so saturated that drops occasionally fell by accident into the work. Paints tended to diffuse through the paper, producing fuzzy edges, puddles, backruns and dense wet in wet color mixing. Subsequent layers would sometimes bead up, repelled by the accumulated layers of gum arabic underneath, making the colors appear to be sprayed on. The resulting images are conjured from dark, muted mixtures shot through with flashes of intense pure color — somber, turbulent, and sometimes menacing or poignant.

Nolde's many nature sketches reveal him in a gentler mood, perhaps encouraged by the warmth and lingering light of northern summer days. These include many paintings of insects and plants observed in his home garden, beautifully cultivated by Nolde and his wife. These often show a lighter, more transparent use of color and more refinement in the drawing. Blue Bells (c.1935, 43x35cm) is a lovely example of his botanical poetry; here his drawing is almost ornamental in its delicacy. The insufficient paper sizing creates the crenelated edges of drying paint, a fuzzy effect that is amplified by the free use of wet color diffusion. The stems and blossoms melt into the pale violet background as if giving off a fragrance, and the outlines of the flowers fuse with the petal colors to suggest their translucency. These effects may seem crude or haphazard, but a painter will recognize that Nolde was familiar with his materials and knew how to get the most out of them. Indeed, Nolde is one of the few watercolor painters who sought out the unpredictable action of water as an ingredient of his style. (His oils are created of paints piled on and scraped around to produce a chaotic, sinewy surface, just as confused and complex as the watercolors.) It is remarkable that these paintings seem to resemble the demanding and stubborn character of the painter, yet still reveal so much beauty in their ardent imperfections.

The best introduction to Nolde's late watercolors is probably Emil Nolde: Unpainted Pictures edited by Tilman Osterwold (Hatje Cantz, 1998). There is a good selection of his paintings in Twentieth-Century Watercolors by Christopher Finch (Abbeville, 1988), now out of print.