Executed in rich, vigorous strokes of intense color, Herbstmeer XVI (Autumn Sea XVI) comes from a sequence of twenty seascapes created by Emil Nolde on the Baltic island of Als during two consecutive autumn campaigns in 1910 and 1911 (Urban, nos. 388-401, 461-466). Presenting spectacular visions of windy, storm-laden skies and dramatic, tumultuous seas, these compositions focus on the artist’s subjective experience of the elements, eschewing any identifiable geographical detail in favor of a sensual, expressive rendering of nature. Housed in its original frame, with delicate patterns hand-carved by the artist, Herbstmeer XVI is among the most chromatically daring and evocative works in this series, capturing a sense of the power of the sea tossed asunder by the temperamental autumn weather, its surface shimmering with glorious color as Nolde luxuriates in both the texture and the hue of his oil paints.
The Herbstmeer series emerged during a period of professional crisis for Nolde, as he became the central protagonist in an argument with the Berlin Secession. Following the exclusion of the artist’s religious figurative painting Pfingsten from exhibition in the spring of 1910, Nolde wrote a public letter of protest in which he fiercely attacked Max Liebermann, then president of the group, sparking a chain of events that would lead to Nolde being formally excluded from their exhibiting activities (Urban, no. 318). The artist was deeply troubled by the incident—feeling misunderstood, he left the city and returned to Als, which became his haven away from the politics and strains of the Berlin art world. It was here, surrounded by the landscape that he knew so well, that he immersed himself once again in his painting, throwing himself headlong into capturing the unique character of the environment, its shifting moods in the ever changing light and weather.
For Nolde, who grew up on the coast of North Schleswig, along the border between Denmark and Germany, the sea was an imposing and powerful presence, an elemental force of nature that was an important and recurrent feature of both his life and his art. On Als, he worked from a wooden hut erected directly on the beach, which offered an unobstructed view over the surrounding water. “Every day, I made my way down to the little studio,” Nolde recalled. “Often, I stood at the window gazing long, contemplating, across and out to sea. There was nothing to see other than the water and the sky. If a bird flew past it was an event. I heard no sound other than occasionally, as if in a dream, the quiet splashing of the waves against the pebbles on the beach” (quoted in S. Schlenker, Emil Nolde und das meer/Emil Nolde and the Sea, exh. cat., Museum Kunst der Westküste, Alkersum/Fo¨hr, 2018, p. 16).
However, Nolde also knew the sea when it unleashed its full fury. He would later recall standing on deck during a turbulent crossing of the Kattegat in a small fishing boat, almost hypnotized by the lashing waters, as he contemplated what would happen if he fell overboard. “I stood gripping the rail, gazing and wondering as the waves and the ship tossed me up and down…” he wrote. “For years afterwards, that day remained so vividly in my mind that I incorporated it into my sea paintings with their wild, mountainous green waves and only at the topmost edge a sliver of sulphurous sky” (quoted in P. Vergo and F. Lunn, Emil Nolde, exh. cat., Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, 1995, p. 132).
It was this raw, awe-inspiring aspect of the sea—its intense, untamable power—that Nolde sought to convey in paintings such as Herbstmeer XVI. Here, the surface of the water rolls with choppy waves, their undulating forms overlapping and running into one another, creating a vast, churning plane of water that seems as if it will never still. Above, the glowing yellow and violet of the sky, painted in vigorous, diagonal rhythms, continues the dynamic movement of the scene while also highlighting Nolde’s love of bold color contrasts. Such dramatic, billowing cloud formations were a common sight above Als, the unsettled, cloudy weather a result of opposing air masses from the North Sea and the Baltic Sea clashing in the atmosphere. Here, the simplified forms of the clouds stretch across the full expanse of the vast sky, reaching out like tendrils from the distant horizon, their golden tones illuminating the surface of the water, turning it from deep blue to soft green.
While the unsettled waves of the Herbstmeer series recall in many ways the tumultuous seascapes of Gustav Courbet, Nolde’s bold, visceral choice of colors and simplified forms reveal the indelible impact of Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin on the artist’s painterly development. Although he categorically denied the substantial or lasting influence of other artists, Nolde’s discovery of these Post-Impressionist painters at the beginning of the twentieth century brought about a distinctive shift in his practice. From this moment onwards, he employed color in a pure and intuitive manner, heightening tones and playing with unexpected contrasts, as he sought to transform nature “by infusing it with one’s own mind and spirit” (quoted in J. Lloyd, Vincent van Gogh and Expressionism, exh. cat., Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, 2006, p. 58). As the artist 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, Emil Nolde, Landscapes, New York, 1970, p. 28).
The first owners of Herbstmeer XVI, the Ruge family, acquired the painting directly from Nolde in 1920, having initially become acquainted with the artist in unusual circumstances—a close friend of theirs had been a fellow traveler on the 1913 expedition the artist had taken to the South Seas. Sadly, she had died during the voyage and, following the end of the First World War, the couple reached out to Nolde to learn more of the circumstances surrounding her death. They remained in close contact with the artist and his wife over the ensuing years, visiting the studio on several occasions, and decided to purchase the present composition on one such visit. The work remained with their son until 1994, at which point it was purchased by the present owner.