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Artists Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Photo

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

German Painter and Printmaker

Movements and Styles: Die Brücke, Expressionism

Born: May 6, 1880 - Aschaffenburg, Bavaria

Died: June 15, 1938 - near Davos, Switzerland

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Timeline


"My paintings are allegories not portraits."
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
"The heaviest burden of all is the pressure of the war and the increasing superficiality. It gives me incessantly the impression of a bloody carnival. I feel as though the outcome is in the air and everything is topsy-turvy.. All the same, I keep on trying to get some order in my thoughts and to create a picture of the age out of confusion, which is after all my function."
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
"It seems as though the goal of my work has always been to dissolve myself completely into the sensations of the surroundings in order to then integrate this into a coherent painterly form."
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
"All art needs this visible world and will always need it. Quite simply because, being accessible to all, it is the key to all other worlds."
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

"A painter paints the appearance of things, not their objective correctness, in fact he creates new appearances of things."

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Signature


Ernst Ludwig Kirchner was a driving force in the Die Brücke group that flourished in Dresden and Berlin before World War I, and he has come to be seen as one of the most talented and influential of Germany's Expressionists. Motivated by the same anxieties that gripped the movement as a whole - fears about humanity's place in the modern world, its lost feelings of spirituality and authenticity - Kirchner had conflicting attitudes to the past and present. An admirer of Albrecht Dürer, he revived the old art of woodblock printing, and saw himself in the German tradition, yet he rejected academic styles and was inspired by the modern city. After the war, illness drove him to settle in Davos, Switzerland, where he painted many landscapes, and, ultimately, he found himself ostracized from mainstream German art. When the Nazis rose to power in the early 1930s he was also a victim of their campaign against "Degenerate Art." Depressed and ill, he eventually committed suicide.

Key Ideas

The human figure was central to Kirchner's art. It was vital to the pictures that took his studio as their backdrop - pictures in which he captured models posing as well as aspects of his bohemian life. For Kirchner, the studio was an important nexus where art and life met. But the figure also informed his images of Berlin, in which the demeanor of figures in the street often seemed more important than the surrounding cityscape. And, most commonly, he depicted the figure in movement, since he believed that this better expressed the fullness and vitality of the human body.
Kirchner's Expressionistic handling of paint represented a powerful reaction against the Impressionism that was dominant in German painting when he first emerged. For him, it marked a reaction against the staid civility of bourgeois life. He would always deny that he was influenced by other artists, yet Henri Matisse and Edvard Munch were clearly important in shaping his style. Fauvism was particularly significant in directing his palette, encouraging him to use flat areas of unbroken, often unmixed color and simplified forms.
Kirchner believed that powerful forces - enlivening yet also destructive - dwelt beneath the veneer of Western civilization, and he believed that creativity offered a means of harnessing them. This outlook shaped the way in which he depicted men and women in his pictures, as people who often seem at war with themselves or their environment. It also encouraged his interest in Primitive art, in particular that of the Pacific Islands, for he considered that this work offered a more direct picture of those elemental energies. Primitive art was also important in directing Kirchner to a more simplified treatment of form. Primitive sculpture undoubtedly inspired his own approach to the medium and his love of rough-hewn, partially painted surfaces.

Most Important Art

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Famous Art

Street, Berlin (1913)

The vigorously painted Street, Berlin explores the figure of the city prostitute: chic streetwalkers who have angular, mask-like faces. The two women proudly walk down the busy, tilted street of cloaked men with more sullen expressions. Street, Berlin accentuates the hidden sensuality beneath the prostitutes' haughty fashion. The luxury and anxious energy in painting also serve as a commentary on a pre-World War I German culture, as Kirchner believed increasing political tensions further detached urban individuals from society. The Streetwalker series, of which this is a famous example, is one of the most admired areas of Kirchner's art. The models for the series may have been dancer Gerda Schilling and her sister Edna, who later became the artist's lover. He once described the two women as having "beautiful, architecturally structured, rigorously formed bodies", and his encounter with them undoubtedly influenced this series of figure paintings.
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Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Artworks in Focus:


Early Training

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner was born on May 6, 1880 in Aschaffenburg, Bavaria, and began studying architecture at the Dresden Technical High School in 1901 at the encouragement of his parents. While attending classes, he became close friends with Fritz Bleyl, who shared his radical outlook on art and nature. During this time, Kirchner chose to dedicate himself to fine art rather than architecture.

In 1905, Kirchner and Bleyl, along with fellow architecture students Karl Schmidt-Rottluff and Erich Heckel, founded the artist group Die Brücke ("The Bridge.") The aim was to eschew traditional academic styles and to create a new mode of artistic expression, forming a "bridge" between classical motifs of the past and the present avant-garde. Die Brücke expressed extreme emotion through crude lines and a vibrant, unnatural color palette. The group would meet in an old butcher's shop that served as Kirchner's studio to practice figure drawing. (Studio meetings, however, would often devolve into casual lovemaking and general nudity.) Much of the artwork created by Die Brücke was a direct response to the graphic work of Albrecht Dürer and the bold color palette of the Neo-Impressionists. Kirchner held a particular interest in the woodcarvings of Dürer, and sought to modernize them with his own unique style of pared-down lines and dynamic compositions.

Mature Period

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Biography

In 1906, Kirchner and Die Brücke held their first group exhibition in a lamp factory. The female nude, inspired by late-night studio meetings, was the primary subject of the exhibition. Kirchner's woodcut print, Nude Dancers (Nackte Tanzerinnen) (1909), exemplifies the energetic tone of the exhibition. The crude, graphic lines depict naked women dancing on a stage. Die Brücke ended in 1913 with Kirchner's publication of Chronik der Brücke (Brücke Chronicle), which focused on the "freedom of life and of movement against the long-established older forces."

Thereafter Kirchner desired to establish his own identity as an artist. He developed an interest in industrialization and the alienation experienced by individuals in cities. Gradually, he turned his attention away from the female nude and toward the Berlin streets with the creation of the Strassenbilder series in 1915. These paintings focus on the energetic life of modern Berlin, as he observed the changing political situation of World War I and its impact on German culture. Kirchner depicted crowds of people with bold, expressive brushstrokes and in brash colors of blue, green, orange, and pink. Perspective was often skewed, the figures looming and teetering either toward or away from the picture plane, as a rejection of the academic conventions that he learned in his architecture courses.

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Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Biography Continues

Late Years and Death

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Photo

Kirchner voluntarily joined the military in 1915, though he was released shortly after due to a nervous breakdown. He recovered in several Swiss hospitals between 1916 and 1917. Scarred by his military experience, in 1918 he moved to a farmhouse in the Alps, near Davos, where his new residence inspired a series of mountain landscapes.

His reputation as a leading German Expressionist continued to grow with exhibitions in Switzerland and Germany in the 1920s. His first monograph and catalog of graphic works were published in 1926. He was commissioned to create several murals in the Folkwang Museum in 1927, and in 1928 was invited to take part in the Venice Biennale. In 1931, as his success continued, Kirchner became a member of the Prussian Academy of Arts.

In 1933, however, German Nazis branded Kirchner as "Degenerate artist," forcing him to resign from the Berlin Academy of Arts. Over 600 of his works were detained or destroyed by the Nazi regime. The traumatic impact of these events led to his suicide on July 15, 1938.


Ernst Ludwig Kirchner was a leading force behind the Expressionist movement in Germany. Since 1913, his work has gained international recognition, extending its popularity into America. His art captures German culture at a critical point in pre-World War I history. Although his work speaks to a specific culture, his expressive skill as a painter and printmaker has influenced generations. Many attempt to emulate Kirchner's distorted sense of perspective. The graphic, agitated lines and highly-keyed color palette are timeless and distinct to the artist. Kirchner's work continues to be exhibited and sold around the world. It has also been a significant influence on new generations of Expressionists, including artists such as Georg Baselitz and Jörg Immendorf.

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Artists, Friends, Movements
Influenced by Artist
Artists, Friends, Movements
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
Interactive chart with Ernst Ludwig Kirchner's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
View Influences Chart


Albrecht DurerAlbrecht Durer
Edvard MunchEdvard Munch
Vincent van GoghVincent van Gogh
Henri MatisseHenri Matisse

Personal Contacts

Erich HeckelErich Heckel
Karl Schmidt-RottluffKarl Schmidt-Rottluff
Fritz BleylFritz Bleyl


Oceanic ArtOceanic Art
Buddhist PaintingBuddhist Painting
Primitive ArtPrimitive Art

Influences on Artist
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
Years Worked: 1902 - 1938
Influenced by Artist


Willem de KooningWillem de Kooning
Georg BaselitzGeorg Baselitz
Jörg ImmendorffJörg Immendorff

Personal Contacts

Erich HeckelErich Heckel
Otto MuellerOtto Mueller
Karl Schmidt-RottluffKarl Schmidt-Rottluff
Fritz BleylFritz Bleyl


Abstract ExpressionismAbstract Expressionism

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Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
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Useful Resources on Ernst Ludwig Kirchner






The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing of this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.


Kirchner and the Berlin Street Recomended resource

By Deborah Wye, Ernst Kirchner

Kirchner Recomended resource

By Norbert Wolf

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Drawings and Pastels

By Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Roman Norbert Ketterer, Wolfgang Henze

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Friends: Expressionism from the Swiss Mountains

By Beat Stutzer, Samuel Vitali, Han Steenbruggen, Matthias Frehner

More Interesting Books about Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
National Gallery of Art: Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Exhibition

Includes Exhibition Materials from the Kirchner Retrospective

The Museum of Modern Art: Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

Features Biography of the Artist and an Extensive List of Works

Brucke-Museum: Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Recomended resource

Provides Information on Kirchner and Die Brucke

On the Block: Berlin Street Scene

By Carol Vogel
The New York Times
January 8, 2009

Desire in Berlin

By Ian Buruma
The New York Review of Books
December 4, 2008

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Michael Werner Gallery

By Robert Pincus-Witten
September 2008

Dark Visions of a Lonely Town on the Brink Recomended resource

By Ken Johnson
The New York Times
August 1, 2008

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