From 1913 until late 1915 Ernst Ludwig Kirchner was, despite an encroaching nervous disorder, at the absolute pinnacle of his artistic powers. His decision to move from Dresden to Berlin had heightened the edgy, nervous tension of his work, imbuing his visions of life in the modern metropolis with an uneasy mix of feverish excitement and underlying dread, an atmosphere that was only accentuated following the outbreak of the First World War. Indeed, though few in number, the paintings Kirchner created over the course of 1915 which focus on his military experiences are often considered amongst his greatest works, from the infamous self-portrait, Selbstbildnis als Soldat (Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College, Ohio) in which the artist presented himself in full uniform, his painting hand dramatically severed at the wrist, to the claustrophobic scene of soldiers bathing en masse in Das Soldatenbad (private collection), which has been interpreted as an intense portrayal of militaristic dehumanization. Created at the peak of his short stint in the military, Reitende Artilleristen provides a glimpse in to the everyday routines, training drills and exercises that shaped Kirchner’s life as a soldier and fueled his artistic imagination at this time.
The declaration of war had caught Kirchner and his partner, Erna Schilling, by surprise during the late summer of 1914, when the impending hostilities forced their sojourn on the small island of Fehmarn to be cut short. Fearing conscription, Kirchner decided to voluntarily enlist in the hope that he would be able to choose the branch of service he would enter, and reported for duty as a driver in the Mansfelder Field Artillery in Halle an der Saale on the 1st July 1915. As his friend and patron Hans Fehr recalled, however, Kirchner did not adapt to military life well. "One morning a soldier appeared on the riding field who should never have been put in uniform, as one could see from a long way off," Fehr later wrote. "It was Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, the painter. He presented himself, clicked his heels clumsily and reported for duty. 'But what are you doing here Herr Kirchner?'–'I was called up suddenly. I shall never be a good soldier. I know that if I’m sent to the front I’ll be shot dead immediately'… He was evidently suffering. He was pale and was losing weight. Anyone could see that he was destined to collapse, sooner or later" (quoted in L. Grisebach, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Cologne, 1999, p. 128). The strict, regimented rule of life as a soldier had indeed taken a dramatic toll on Kirchner’s mental and physical health, and within four months of being called up, he was invalided out of the army on the understanding that he would enter a sanatorium for urgent treatment.
Despite the suffering he endured in the course of his military service, Kirchner did not seek to avoid the war in his paintings of this period, but rather grounded his compositions in these new environments and experiences, often focusing his artistic eye on the mundane routines and minutia of life as a soldier. Central to many of Kirchner’s paintings and graphic works at this time were the powerful regimental horses that surrounded him, and among which the artist found a certain solace. When asked by Fehr if he found any enjoyment during his time in the military, he responded: "I take great pleasure in running the curry-comb and the brush over my horse and its hide, and in feeling her bones beneath my fingers. I’m so fond of my horse that I would weep if I had to part with her" (quoted in P. Springer, Hand and Head: Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Self-Portrait as Soldier, trans. S. Ray, Berkeley, 2002, p. 26). Photographs taken by the artist in his Berlin studio while on leave during the fall of 1915 show not only the artist in full military uniform, but also a number of drawings and sketches focusing on an individual on horseback, just visible both on and above the armchair behind the artist. Clinging to the animal’s flanks as it rears upwards on its hind legs, these sketches appear to explore a pose very similar to that of the central figure in Reitende Artilleristen. In the finished painting, however, this horse and its rider appear mid-gallop, dashing across an open landscape alongside another cavalryman and his steed. Behind, a third artilleryman in full uniform appears to monitor their progress, watching the soldiers carefully as they carry out their drill.
While Kirchner had been granted special permission to leave his military position, anxiety about potentially being redrafted continued to plague the artist, and in the ensuing years he suffered from a series of nervous breakdowns, compounded by substance abuse, which caused him to be admitted to various sanatoria. "The burden of the war and the encroaching superficiality weigh more heavily on me than anything else," he wrote in 1916. "I constantly have the impression of a bloody carnival… We get all puffed up about our work, yet all work [is] futile and the tide of mediocrity is sweeping all before it. I am now just like the prostitutes I painted. Swept up somewhere, and next time swept away. Yet I still try to bring some degree of order into my thoughts and out of the muddle to create a picture of our times, which is after all, my job … Having seen what I have seen in these times, I shouldn’t really be alive at all" (letter to Gustav Schiefler, November 1916, quoted in W. Henze, ed., Ernst Ludwig Kirchner-Gustav Schiefler: Briefewechsel 1910-1935/38, Zürich, 1990, p. 78, no. 57). Reitende Artilleristen is among the very last paintings that Kirchner created during this fascinating, climactic point in his artistic career.