• Christies auction house James Christie logo

    Sale 7601

    Impressionist and Modern Works on Paper

    25 June 2008, London, King Street

  • Lot 311

    Emil Nolde (1867-1956)


    Price Realised  


    Emil Nolde (1867-1956)
    signed 'Nolde.' (lower right)
    watercolour on Japan paper
    14 x 18 in. (35.6 x 45.7 cm.)

    Contact Client Service
    • info@christies.com

    • New York +1 212 636 2000

    • London +44 (0)20 7839 9060

    • Hong Kong +852 2760 1766

    • Shanghai +86 21 6355 1766

    Dr Manfred Reuther from the Nolde Stiftung, Seebüll, has confirmed the authenticity of this work.

    Special Notice

    No VAT will be charged on the hammer price, but VAT at 15% will be added to the buyer's premium which is invoiced on a VAT inclusive basis.


    Acquired by the mother of the present owner in the 1960s, and thence by descent.

    Saleroom Notice

    Please note that the exact measurements for this work are: 13¼ x 17 7/8 in. (33.7 x 45.5 cm.).

    Pre-Lot Text

    Emil Nolde is one of the great masters of 20th century watercolour. At his best, he brought something important and innovative to the notoriously difficult medium, executing works with a tremendous assurance of touch and an unrivalled fluidity and spontaneity. Nolde began working with watercolours whilst teaching in St Gallen in Switzerland during the 1890s, but it was not until he involved the laws of chance with aspects of his technique that he felt he began to show true mastery of the medium. Painting outdoors in Cospeda near Jena in 1907 and 1908, Nolde allowed nature to intervene in his practice, watching with pleasure as the falling snow melted onto his work, making the colours run into one another and crystallize on the page. This happenstance collaboration with the elements signified a great leap forward in Nolde's work and from that point forward, watercolour took a central role in his artistic practice, occupying him continually until his death in 1956.

    After his experiments in Cospeda, Nolde increasingly used a highly absorbent Japan paper for his watercolours, saturating it with layers of pigment and allowing the colours to flow almost beyond his control before picking out the contours of his subject - a practice he called 'passive painting', in keeping with his elevation of instinct above reason as the most important source of creativity. Nolde worked with an incredible rapidity, an ability he developed on his South Seas tour from 1913 to 1914 and in the darkened theatres of Berlin. The artist frequently attended performances to sketch the choreography of modern dance, a recurring theme in his art. He would almost always use watercolour for his studies, arranging his boxed colours in a particular order so he might find them in the dim light of the front row, whilst his wife Ada dutifully kept a collection of clean brushes on hand for him to use at any moment.

    The ever-changing conditions of the sea were another important and recurrent feature of both his life and his art. For Nolde, who grew up on the coast and was to spend almost all his life near the ocean, the sea was an imposing and powerful presence. Believing, like many of his Expressionist colleagues, that colour was a direct means of expressing emotion, Nolde used his subjects as a means to convey atmosphere and feeling through luminous colour. Nolde often piled pigments on top of one another to create a highly emotive play of colour and light. As a painter, Nolde compared this layering of colour to the orchestration of music, stating: 'colours are my notes, which I use to form harmonizing or contrasting sounds and chords' (cited in 'Fulfilling Fear', Time Magazine, 17 March 1967).

    In his later years, Nolde suffered censorship and persecution from the National Socialist Party and was forbidden to paint or sell his work. Fearful that the strong smell of oil paints and turpentine would expose him at work in his studio in Seebüll, Nolde preserved his inner freedom by secretly executing hundreds of watercolours, using his 'wet on wet' painting method to create spontaneous images in fluid, transparent colours. The words of the artist's second wife Jolanthe vividly describe Nolde's working methods and encapsulate the unique combination of intuition and expertise that elevates his watercolours to greatness: 'patiently the brush caresses the surface, the wet paper cockles, the colour gradually accumulating in the little hollows... Because he painted with such diluted colours, the contours would stray across the surface of the paper for up to an hour before they were finally dry... He would paint, the paper would soak up the colour, the contours would spread as if the material had become liberated - yet the pictures were a success... The pictures just happened, unfolding like living beings - under guidance, but with a life of their own' (J. Nolde cited in P. Vergo, The Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, Twentieth Century German Painting, London, 1992, p. 312).