Max Beckmann was seventeen when he made his first printed self-portrait, depicting himself as an isolated, screaming head (Hofmaier 2). His last, showing a man in late middle age wearing a beret, came sixty two years later. In the intervening forty-five years he returned to his own likeness as a subject no fewer than thirty-five times, rivalling Rembrandt as possibly greatest self-portraitist in the history of printmaking. All three techniques - drypoint, lithography and woodcut - were used at various times, but it was the powerful immediacy of drypoint - whereby the image is scratched directly into the metal plate - that suited his purposes best.
Selbstbildnis mit steifem Hut ('Self-Portrait with Bowler Hat') is arguably his greatest achievement as a printmaker and portraitist. Not unlike Rembrandt, who frequently made sweeping changes to his large drypoints, Beckmann radically revised the plate by adding and burnishing out entire elements of the composition. The result is a dark, heavily worked and powerful image.
Superficially Beckmann appears a dandy, urbane and seemingly confident - yet his eyes are full of doubt and unease. As well as a character study, this Selbstbildnis encapsulates the contradictions and uncertainties of the Weimar Republic; the haunting memories, the sense of foreboding, the decadence, defiance and elegance. Together with Erich Heckel's woodcut Männerbildnis (1919), Beckmann's Selbstbildnis mit steifem Hut is one of the most poignant images of the inter-war years, and one of the great self-portraits of the 20th century.
The present very fine impression comes from The Neuerburg Collection, part of which was offered in a landmark sale at Christie's New York in November 1988. Initiated by the industrialist Heinrich Neuerburg (1880-1956), and enhanced by his son Dr. Walter Neuerburg (1912-1986), the collection held many important prints by masters of the 19th and 20th centuries. It was, however, most noted for its exceptional German Expressionist prints.