Property of a Private Collection
Watercolor played a central role in Nolde's artistic practice from 1910 until his death in 1956. Working on highly absorbent paper that he dampened before beginning to paint, Nolde created images of unmatched beauty and poetry, the vibrant colors flowing into one another and saturating the page in fluid, transparent pools. Two of the pre-eminent subjects in Nolde's watercolor oeuvre are flowers and the sea, both of which gave rise to extravagant, emotive displays of color. Nolde explained, "The Painter's eye sees and sees, incessantly perceiving, comparing, arranging, and shaping, yet also sleeping and dreaming of images that are often more beautiful than anything it sees" (quoted in M. Urban, Emil Nolde, Landscapes, New York, 1970, p. 28). Each of these subjects is represented in the present group by two paintings of great technical assurance and expressive vigor. In the flower images, domesticated nature becomes a symbol of growth and vitality, but at the same time of the limits and transience of life. The seascapes, in contrast, with their lofty, crepuscular skies, convey the quintessence of permanence and eternity, showing nature as an indomitable force of unfettered energy. Werner Haftmann has written, "Flowers and clouds-- these were for Nolde the two symbolic poles of the drama of nature. Clouds were the seat of the gods and of fear, the eternally changing and yet imperishable menace or solace of heavenly religion, the form and vehicle of transcendent light, the immemorial fate of the earth. Flowers were the mortal forms that grow out of the womb of the earth, strange, mysterious creatures of fragile beauty--a beauty often enough desperate or feverish, as though aware of its own fugitiveness" (Emile Nolde, New York, 1959, p. 37).
Nolde began to work with watercolor in 1892-1898, while teaching commercial drawing at St Gallen in Switzerland. His watercolor production from this early period, however, consists almost entirely of accurately drawn, topographically correct landscape views. Only one example stands apart from the rest: a tiny sheet covered in glowing colors, depicting the red fireball of the sun emerging from behind a white veil of mist, above the tops of dark green pine trees and in front of a heavy, reddish-purple wall of cloud. Nolde himself recognized the premonitory quality of this watercolor and kept it as a special treasure. "It lay on my desk for a long while," he later recalled. "I must have gazed at it a thousand times. It seemed to be pointing in some direction, because it gave me so much pleasure. But I couldn't manage to paint another picture of this kind. Was I aware of the long way from the faithful copying of what one sees and enjoys around one--which was how all my pictures to date had come into being-- to the free invention of images, forming from deep within oneself?" (quoted in M. Urban, Emil Nolde, Flowers and Animals, New York, 1966, pp. 10-11).
Indeed, after the years at St Gallen, it would be another decade until Nolde picked up watercolor once again, this time during a stay at Cospeda, near Jena, in 1908. Here, Nolde has recounted, "I made great advances in this technique... and painting in watercolors has remained a need for me ever since... From the intimate, somewhat fussy manner of my earliest watercolors, I progressed with infinite trouble towards a freer, broader, and more flowing style, which requires especially thorough understanding of and feeling for the different types of paper and the possibilities of color" (quoted in M. Urban, op. cit., p. 8; M. Gosebruch, Nolde, Watercolors and Drawings, New York, 1973, p. 25). His breakthrough at Cospeda occurred as he was painting winter landscapes en plein air, and the falling snow began to melt onto his work, causing the colors to run into one another and to crystallize on the page. "I was painting small pictures," he explained. "They wouldn't turn out properly. So I decided to try watercolors and painted a glowing red sun setting over the slush; I painted the white, falling snow. Half-finished and finished pictures were scattered around, covered with snow, so that I had to look for them. I was astounded at how the texture of the colors had altered under the snow. Sometimes I also painted in the ice-cold evenings, and I enjoyed seeing the colors freeze into crystal stars and rays. I loved this collaboration with nature, in which painter, reality, and painting seemed to fuse into one entity" (quoted in M. Urban, op. cit., p. 29).
Although Nolde never repeated this "collaboration with nature" in the same form, it was decisive in the development of his mature watercolor technique. In 1910, seeking to duplicate the accidental changes brought about at Cospeda by the sleet and snow, he began to use thick, highly absorbent rice paper that he dampened first and then saturated with layers of watercolor. The fluid, transparent colors would penetrate the paper, flowing into one another, blurring contours and altering forms; the act of creation thus became part of the picture, forms no longer delineated but seemingly conjured up out of the superimposed strata of pigment. After the page had dried, Nolde could add additional layers of paint, strengthening one or another focus of interest or heightening the free, often extravagant play of colors. Martin Urban has written, "All these processes lent wings to the artist's fancy, and he was to attain supreme virtuosity in mastering the interplay of dissolution and limitation, flowing movement and firmness of outline. Whereas the Cospeda watercolors were painted on solid cardboard and transformed by the effect of snow and rain, in the new technique it was the paper itself that brought about the transformation" (op. cit., p. 22).
Although Nolde continued to experiment with his watercolor technique over the course of his career, sometimes using other types of paper or supplementing the watercolor with tempera, opaque white gouache, pen and ink, or pastel, he never abandoned the almost meditative procedure that he developed after his stay at Cospeda, with its embrace of controlled chance. Anticipating the artistic principles of Tachisme and L'Art informel, he relished the half-automatic process of creation, in which images emerged from the free play of color with little or no preconceived reference. His second wife Jolanthe recalled, "He would paint, the paper would soak up the color, the contours would spread as if the material had become liberated... The pictures just happened, unfolding like living beings--under guidance, but with a life of their own" (quoted in P. Vergo, Twentieth-Century German Painting: The Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, London, 1992, p. 312). Likewise, Nolde himself explained, "I had always wanted to paint so that I, the painter, would be the medium through which the colors worked out their own logical development in the same way that nature creates her own work; in the same way that crystals and metal are formed; that moss and algae grow, that a flower must unfold and bloom under the sun's rays... I feel at times as though I myself can do nothing, but nature in and through me can do a great deal" (quoted in M. Urban, op. cit., p. 20; op. cit., 1970, p. 28).
Nolde's reference to flowers here is significant and surely not coincidental. Although his very first "wet-on-wet" watercolors were figural scenes, principally depicting nightlife in Berlin, he soon began to exploit the expressive potential inherent in this method to depict flowers, one of the key themes of his entire oeuvre. Nolde's earliest paintings of flowers, produced at Alsen in 1906-1908, had been painted in oil, and it was in honor of their semi-abstract profusion of color that the painters of Die Brücke had invited Nolde to join them. In 1914, Nolde and his wife Ada left their idyllic Baltic retreat and returned to the harsher and more austere west Schleswig coast, purchasing a small farmhouse in the marsh village of Utenwarf, not far from Nolde's hometown. Refuting the notion that flowers would not grow in a marsh, Nolde planted a garden there that became one of the local sights to see, the vivid colors of the blossoms standing out against the green expanse of the fen. He painted these in oil, but also in watercolor, producing images that he described as "deeper, more generously conceived, more melancholy" than the garden scenes from Alsen (quoted in M. Urban, op. cit., p. 25).
From then on, Nolde's successive flower paintings run like a brilliant thread through the whole of his work. He continued to paint flowers both in oil and watercolor after his move to Seebüll in 1927, where he planted elaborate beds of blossoms in the shape of the letters E and A (for Emil and Ada), around the tomb that he intended he and his wife eventually to share. During the Second World War, when he was forbidden to paint, he made only a handful of oils, all of them flower scenes, in addition to his famous Unpainted Pictures, and the very last works that he executed in the 1950s, shortly before his death, were watercolors of flowers. Throughout the many hard times of his last decades, he repeatedly sought solace and renewed energy in his garden. Urban has explained, "The flower paintings of Emile Nolde are evidence of joy in a person who was inclined to regard life as difficult. They contain none of the sentimental, superficial prettiness so often prevalent in this genre; once can sense in them the tremendous strength that enabled Nolde to endure the hardships of his life. During his years of greatest stress, after he had been branded a "degenerate artist" by the Nazis, Nolde wrote on one of the little slips of paper that served him as a notebook: 'Flowers bloom for people's enjoyment. I paint them in summer, carrying the joy they inspire into the winter'" (ibid., p. 7).
Part of the appeal that flowers held for Nolde was surely the freedom that they gave him to introduce pure and unfettered color into his paintings. Color was Nolde's quintessential element of expression, and that he himself conceived of flowers as the mainspring and basic source of his color composition was evident after the Liberation, when he wrote, "First I will do a few flower pictures with large, glowing red poppies, to re-accustom myself to color" (quoted in ibid., p. 25). In Rosen, the brilliant ruby-hued blossoms burst forth from the dark green foliage, reaching towards the upper edge of the page; in Blumen, by contrast, flowers of many different shades spread across the sheet like a vibrant carpet, the realism of perspective and the delineation of the object taking second place to the rhythm of the colors. Urban has written, "Flowers allowed his color sense more freedom than any other theme; here he could carry his conception of the musicality and absolute effect of colors almost to the point of abstraction without losing the connection with nature which he needed in order to paint" (ibid., p. 25).
Flowers, however, were more than just vibrant patches of color for Nolde; they also symbolized for him the eternal cycle of birth, life, and death. He explained, "I loved the flowers for their fate: springing up, blooming, glowing, making people happy, drooping, wilting, finally ending up discarded in a ditch. Human life is not always so logical or beautiful" (quoted in ibid., p. 7). In the fullness of their bloom, flowers appeared to him as living creatures, their brilliant hues an external embodiment of the artist's own emotions and moods. "He who paints flowers should paint their inner life, their soul," he wrote. "Yellow can depict happiness and also pain. Red can mean fire, blood, or roses; blue can mean silver, the sky, or a storm. Each color has a soul of its own" (quoted in ibid., p. 25; M. Urban, op. cit., 1970, p. 16).
Nolde's love of flowers had begun in his childhood, when he would help his mother tend their garden, and was thus rooted in a profound sense of Heimat, or homeland. So too was his lifelong attraction to the sea, which constitutes another of the most important themes of his art, and another key vehicle for his powerfully expressive use of color. For much of his life, Nolde lived on the edge of, or close to the ocean. It was the dominant element in his native region of Schleswig-Holstein, the German portion of the Danish peninsula, and although he spent a great deal of time in Berlin, it was always to this North Sea coast that he returned. The landscape there consists of an immense, unrelieved plain of marshland, dotted with isolated farms and villages and swept by the salt wind, beyond which lies the vast expanse of the sea. This panorama played the same part in Nolde's art as the terrain around Aix-en-Provence did in Cézanne's. Carla Schulz-Hoffmann has written, "The vast breadth of the North German and Danish coastal landscape, the eternal proximity of the sea, the special color characteristic of an environment exposed to extreme climatic conditions have all left their mark on Nolde the painter" (in C. Joachimides, N. Rosenthal, and W. Schmied, eds., German Art in the Twentieth Century, Munich, 1985, p. 432).
The imposing presence of the sea, with its ever-changing conditions, made a particularly powerful impact on Nolde. At Alsen, during his early years of maturity as a painter, his studio was right on the beach: "I often stood at the window, lost in prolonged contemplation of the sea. Nothing but sea and sky. There was no sound but the occasional soft, dream-like splash of the waves against the shingle" (quoted in W. Haftmann, op. cit., 1959, pl. 13). However, Nolde also knew the sea when it unleashed its full fury. He would later recall a turbulent crossing of the Kattegat in a small fishing boat, when he was almost hypnotized by the lashing waters. "Watching with amazement I had to hold on with all my strength to the handrail, tossed every which way on the ship and the waves," he wrote. "The memory of that day was so vivid that for years afterwards I used it in painting my sea-pieces... Supposing a heavy sea had swept me overboard and I had had to fight for my life in the water, I wonder if I should now be able to paint the sea with even greater force" (quoted in ibid., pl. 13; M. Urban, op. cit., 1970, p. 32).
Nolde painted his first seascapes, predominantly gray-toned, at Copenhagen in 1901, and from 1910 onward, he produced new sea pieces in oil almost every year until 1951. He began to treat the theme in watercolor as well in 1918-1919, and it quickly became a seminal element of his "wet-on-wet" oeuvre. In the two seascapes in the present group, the paint bleeds across the entire sheet, creating great pools of intense color. It is either dawn or (more likely) dusk in both, and the light floods the landscape, transforming the expanse of sea and sky into an unreal fantasy of color, unfathomable depths of blue and purple shot through with fiery bursts of orange and gold. Urban has written, "The vault of the sky forms a giant stage on which dramatic forms appear: mountainous clouds, strong contrasts of light and dark and the colorful glow of light. In this region by the sea, the cloudy sky presents true orgies of color, not for a few minutes only as in the South Seas, but throughout the long northern twilight" (ibid., p. 26). This is the hour, moreover, when the sky and water seem to be reflections of one another, and a hovering light is produced that threatens to erase the horizon line, and with it our sense of spatial reference and boundaries. In Meer mit Segelboot, sea and sky are almost completely merged, and it is only the single, heroically isolated sailboat, its form conjured up from the pools of color, that orients us in the vast landscape. With their heavy and brooding intensity, the images convey nothing less than the raw, awe-inspiring power of nature.
Unlike Nolde's flower paintings, many of which were made en plein air (Gustav Schiefler, one of the artist's earliest patrons, recalled him seated in the midst of a brilliant profusion of flowers, his eyes glowing with pleasure as he worked), his seascapes were painted in the studio. "The pictures were inspired by nature, and I painted the mountain ones out of doors, but not the sea pieces," the artist explained. "That would be impossible" (quoted in ibid., p. 28). Drawing on his immense trove of experience observing the sea, renewing and re-examining his impressions, his paintings emerge from memory as poetic inventions, pigments piled one on top of the other to create a highly emotive play of color and light. Urban has concluded, "We see [in the seascapes] his complete absorption in the elemental forces of nature, up to the perilous border-line of human possibility; his identification with the object as he penetrates its essence, his power to seize reality and be seized by it, and then to paint his picture from memory, away from the world of superficial appearances, guided solely by his imagination and the sensual lure of color. In this way, there is no theme of which he is not now a master. In his sea-pieces he can allow absolute freedom to the flow of color, while at once transmuting it into order by his sovereign power" (ibid., p. 32).
Emil Nolde, Seebüll, 1955.
Emil Nolde in the garden at Seebüll, 1955.
Emil Nolde and Ada in their garden at Seebüll, 1945.
Emil Nolde and Ada in a boat near Seebüll, circa 1930.
Emil Nolde (1867-1956)
Herbsthimmel am Meer
Emil Nolde (1867-1956)
Herbsthimmel am Meer
signed 'Nolde.' (lower right)
watercolor on Japan paper
14¼ x 20 in. (36.2 x 50.5 cm.)
Painted circa 1940
Dr. Mutter (acquired from the artist).
Henry Nannen, Hamburg.
Charles Tabachnick, Toronto; sale, Sotheby's, New York, 19 November 1986, lot 13.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.