Max Beckmann, 1884-1950

By Lori Stranger


Max Beckmann was a German Expressionist painter and printmaker, born on the 12th of February, 1884 in Leipzig, Germany, and he died on December 27th, 1950, New York.   

Beckmann showed an interest in art early in his life; his 1898 Self Portrait illustrates his interest in self-reflection and the human condition, a theme that he would continue to explore throughout his life.  In 1898 Beckmann applied to the Akademie der Bildenden Kunste (The Academy of Fine Arts) in Dresden but was denied entry; however, he was soon admitted in 1900 to the Grossherzoglich-Sachsische Kunstschule Weimar (Weimar-Saxon Grand Ducal Art Academy).  After receiving his degree he repeatedly travelled to Paris, becoming infatuated with the Impressionists’ and Post-Impressionists’ style, particularly the work of Paul Cézanne.

In 1904, Beckmann returned to Germany and lived in Berlin until the start of the First World War. His early paintings such as Young Man by the Seas (1905) demonstrate the influence of the Impressionists who were concerned with depicting light and typically displayed a lighter colour palette. Beckmann’s assimilation of artistic styles continued with his 1906 meeting of the Norwegian painter, Edvard Munch, whose more morbid compositions and blurred forms fascinated Beckmann, encouraging a more expressionistic style as seen in his Small Death Scene (1906). Later that year, Beckmann joined The Berlin Secession, a group founded to counter the conservative art world of contemporary Europe, marking an increasingly avant-garde approach to his art.

The First World War marked a dramatic transformation of Beckmann’s style, which lasted the rest of his life.  Serving as a medical orderly, his exposure to the horrors of war and gruesome death had a profound impact, and transferred into his painting.  The distorted figures of The Descent from the Cross (1917) illustrate a break from the aesthetic, lighter scenes of his earlier period.  The angular contoured forms in a tight, claustrophobic composition present a disquieting scene.  Furthermore, his shocking The Night (1918-19) illustrates Beckmann’s critique of war as the various gazes of the figures encourage the viewer’s gaze to haphazardly move across the painting, symbolising the chaos of war.

In 1933, Beckmann was forced to resign from his professorship at the Stadel School of Art in Frankfurt.  His art was declared to be ‘degenerate’ by the Nazi regime and many of his paintings were put on display in the infamous Degenerate Art Exhibition in Munich.  Finding the conditions unbearable, he fled to Amsterdam in 1937 until 1957, when he moved to the United States and received a teaching position at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri. Throughout his life, Beckmann remained dedicated to an expressive social commentary on life as he elevated the individual; for example, this can be seen in The Actors (1942), Carnival (1943) and The Argonauts (1950). 

On the 27th December, 1950, Max Beckmann died of a heart attack.  His success as a painter in his lifetime, receiving in 1927 Empire Prize for German Art continues to this day, his boldness and powerful personal narratives ensuring his legacy. 



Britannica, Max Beckmann.  Accessed 11th February, 2018.

Encyclopaedia, Max Beckmann.  Accessed 11th February, 2018.

The Art Story.  Accessed 11th February, 2018.