Painted in 1938, Max Beckmann’s romantic Mondnacht am Meer (grün) presents a lyrical, dreamlike vision of the sea at night, the soft golden light of a crescent moon shimmering in the surface of the water as an apparently uninhabited sailboat cuts through the scene, tracking a mysterious course through the water. The subject of the sea had long been an obsession for the artist, with Beckmann referring to it in his diaries as “my old girlfriend.” A source of solace and painterly inspiration, he returned to the subject again and again in his art, delving into the memories of seascapes he had experienced firsthand, sometimes years previously, and translating them onto canvas. Indeed, his close friend Stephan Lackner recalled Beckmann’s uncanny abilities of recollection and reflection: “At times I witnessed his amazing visual recall. He loved automobile excursions but did not drive himself so I often chauffeured him through Paris and the French countryside. Sometimes I saw him press his eyelids together like the shutter of a camera. Several months later, visiting to view his latest works, I would recognize a sight of which he had taken a mental snapshot” (Lackner, quoted in Beckman, New York, 1977, p. 134).
The idyllic, serene atmosphere and intense sense of stillness within the composition belies the tumultuous circumstances in which Mondnacht am Meer (grün) was created – Beckmann and his wife Quappi had fled Germany in July 1937, driven from their home upon hearing Hitler’s speech at the opening of the Haus der Deutschen Kunst in Munich, in which the dictator denounced "degenerate" modern artists such as Beckmann and called for their complete eradication from society. Escaping on a train to Amsterdam the very next day, the artist would spend much of the next decade living in exile in the Dutch capital, where he became trapped following the outbreak of war and the occupation of Holland by German forces. With its evocative atmospheric effects and melancholic mood, Mondnacht am Meer (grün) suggests a narrative rooted in and reflective of the artist’s personal experiences at this time. The manner in which the boat’s anchor hovers just above the water, its base skimming the surface of the sea, suggests it is either preparing to drop at any moment, stopping the vessel in place as it finds the perfect mooring, or releasing the boat so that it may venture into unchartered territory. In light of his recent emigration to Holland, the ethereal seascape may have held a poignant personal resonance for the artist, alluding to the odyssey on which Beckmann had just embarked in his desperate escape from persecution.