Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Biography Buy Art Prints Now
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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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This Ernst Ludwig Kirchner biography captures the key moments in his life on the way to becoming one of the most famous German artists in history.

The Early Years

Ernst was born on the 6th of May, 1880 in Aschaffenburg, as one of three brothers. His parents Maria and Ernst Snr were in their late twenties and early thirties, respectively, at the time of his birth. They moved to Frankfurt when he was still a young boy and then on to Lucerne, Switzerland a year later. A promotion for his father then led the family on to Chemnitz in 1890. The family would now settle in the area for many years after a long period of change.

After leaving school the young Ernst chose to continue his studies in architecture, as strongly directed by his father. In Dresden he would attend the Royal Saxon Technical College and soon he would start to experiment in the field of painting for the very first time. At this point he was still only in his very early teens and had a long path ahead of him in order to achieve the heights that he did.

Kirchner achieved his diploma successfully and would now take up several different art courses, which even at this early stage in his life seemed to be his calling. Having completed his father's request, he could now focus on just what he most wanted to do, and this included courses in composition theory, life drawing amongst a plethora of fundamental skills required for any successful artist. He had found his passion and supplemented his studies with visits to museums and art galleries in order to study original artworks close up. Here he would discover the work of artists like Kandinsky, Seurat and Signac, amongst others. The work of Albrecht Durer also left a significant imprint on his development, even though the later style that he developed was so modernist.

The artist's earliest paintings were considered Art Nouveau in style, quite departed from the style that we most remember him for. lphonse Mucha was the star of this movement but Kirchner eventually moved on in his development into new avenues of artistic expression.

Formation of Die Brücke Movement

It was in the summer of 1905 that Kirchner set up the Die Brücke art movement alongside his close friends and fellow classmates, Erich Heckel, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff and Fritz Bleyl. Leipzig was to be the location of their first exhibition several months later and Ernst also started to become a more confident young man who was comfortable socially. Many followers of Kirchner's career will immediately point to similarities to the work of Munch and, particularly, Vincent van Gogh. It was an exhibition in Dresden that first introduced him to the work of this world-famous Dutchman and several aspects that he took from this experience would be the vibrant colour and also the adaptions to perspective.

By 1906 this exciting group of young artists was travelling around, promoting a selection of their drawings, watercolours and woodcuts. They were joined by several new members who paid a small fee for the priviledge of joining this open minded community. New members included Cuno Amiet, Emil Nolde and Max Pechstein. The group's momentum was starting to build fairly early on after its inception. During this year, Ernst also started to work with several new mediums in which he had not worked before, namely etchings and lithographs. There was even sculpture for the first time. The Die Brücke movement itself would last until 1913 and left a significant impression on both German and European art as a whole.

As the movement gained further critical praise, Kirchner continued to make visits to any major exhibitions in his vicinity as well as further developing the mediums in which he was involved. There was a visit to a major Gauguin exhibition, for example, as well as Henri Matisse and Paul Cezanne. At this time the artist also produced significant amounts of work at the Moritzburg Ponds.

Strains were starting to show in the Die Brücke movement in 1912 when Pechstein was banned from the group after displaying some of his work within a Secession exhibition. He had not sought permission to do this and several other members were unhappy with this. At that point there was also dialogue with the Der Blaue Reiter movement who shared many of the same principles on which the movement was initially formed. Stars of that group included Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc. It was, ironically, the formation of the movement's Chronicle which ultimately led to the Die Brücke demise, with the members unable to agree on its wording.

Kirchner, Post-Die Brücke

It was now that Ernst would work with greater freedom and it was at this point that he produced a number of his street scenes which are considered by many to be amongst his career highlights. The artist would now go about putting on a number of individual exhibitions having worked collaboratively for several years. He would also work in interior design, constructing most elements of his studio himself and working as creatively as possible. There seemed no limit to his artistic capabilities and he had achieved enough success to finance his ambitious attitude.

The artist also started to produce self-portraits during this period, perhaps becoming more inward-looking in terms of his emotions, as well as becoming concerned by the direction of European society as it headed into WWI. He would himself be drawn into the war, despite natural reservations on a number of levels.

War Time, 1914-1918

Kirchner would spend considerable amounts of time in sanatoriums though there was also considerable concern over his mental health. In truth, his bouts of ill health would keep him away from the majority of WWI, at least from the point of view of from serving on the frontline. The artist took this opportunity to continue his artistic work and forge new friendships and partnerships. It did prove particularly difficult to move around different regions at this time, though, and he had a get hold of a license in order to move to Davos in 1918. From there he would produce large numbers of landscape paintings and it was here that he started to find a certain level of happiness, perhaps for the first time.