Born in a village close to Denmark’s border with Germany, Emil Hansen began studying wood carving at the age of 17 while at the same time training as a draughtsman. A period of working in furniture factories followed, while he took evening classes in arts and crafts.
Between 1892 and 1897 he taught technical draughtsmanship, travelled to Milan, Vienna and Munich, and discovered a fascination with mountain scenery. He designed postcards with caricatures of personified mountains that became such a commercial success that he cut short his studies and moved to Munich to work as a painter.
After a few months in Paris at the Académie Julian (whose students represent a roll call of turn-of-the-century artists), in 1901 he settled in Copenhagen. There he met Ada Vilstrup whom he married in 1902, changing his name to that of his birthplace, Nolde. In 1903 he moved to the island of Alsen (now called Als) east of Denmark’s Jutland peninsula, spending the winter months in Berlin where he rented a studio.
Following an exhibition of his works in Dresden in 1906, the German expressionists known as “The Bridge” invited him to join them. For two years Nolde took part in touring exhibitions, but after two years left the group citing differences in age and temperament. Back in Berlin Nolde took up painting city nightlife and studied the art of indigenous peoples.
In 1913-14, the German government paid for him and his wife to accompany a medical expedition to the South Pacific. A large number of watercolours resulted from this journey and with increasing financial success, Nolde moved to Seebüll near Neukirchen, Germany, where he designed and built a house and studio. Today it is the Ada and Emil Nolde Foundation, a study centre displaying many of his works.
In 1934 Nolde learnt that he was suffering from stomach cancer. A successful operation was followed by long convalescence in Switzerland, where he met Paul Klee, also in poor health. The two men admired one another. Nolde described Klee as “a falcon soaring in the starry cosmos”, and Klee reciprocated by calling him “the mysterious hand of the lowlands.”
Nolde had supported the Nazi party from the early 1920s, having joined its Danish section. But under the Third Reich more than 1,000 of his paintings (more than any other artist) were confiscated from museums and in 1937 his work was a special focus of the Nazis’ “Degenerate Art” exhibition in Munich. From 1941 Nolde was prohibited from painting, but in secret he produced small watercolours which he called “unpainted pictures”.
Nolde’s artistic philosophy was spiritual: “There is silver blue, sky blue and thunder blue. Every colour holds within it a soul, which makes me happy or repels me, and which acts as a stimulus. To a person who has no art in him, colours are colours, tones tones, and that is all. All their consequences for the human spirit, which range from heaven to hell, just go unnoticed.”
Nolde’s work can be seen at the Museum of Modern Art, New York City, the Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, and in Berlin at the Brücke Museum and the Emil Nolde Museum. His woodcut print, “The Prophet” (1912), seen above, is one of the icons of 20th-century art.