Christian Rohlfs

Christian Rohlfs (* 22 December 1849 in Niendorf, district of Segeberg; † 8 January 1938 in Hagen) was a German painter and pioneer of modernism. His work reflects several important contemporary trends, including classical Academy painting, later Impressionism and finally Expressionism.

Christian Rohlfs Education and Early Work

Christian Rohlfs was born in Niendorf on 22 December 1849. At the age of fifteen Rohlfs falls from a tree and injures his leg, which leads to two years of bedriddenness. His attending doctor provides him with painting utensils against the emerging boredom and quickly recognises the boy's potential. On Theodor Storm's recommendation, Rohlfs visits the painter and writer Ludwig Pietsch in Berlin in 1869. In 1870 he began studying art at the Grand Ducal Academy in Weimar. In 1873 he had to interrupt his studies due to the amputation of his right leg. At the academy he was given a freelance position by Paul Thomann and created mainly naturalistic works. In 1876 he began his apprenticeship with Alexander Struys.

After completing his studies, Christian Rohlfs was declared an independent artist on 15 June 1884. As a freelance artist he increasingly turned to Impressionism from 1880. His works are exhibited at the Academy of Arts in Berlin in 1890.

Christian Rohlfs and Karl Ernst Osthaus

Through the mediation of the architect Henry van de Velde, contact is made with Karl Ernst Osthaus, who is busy founding the Folkwang Museum in Hagen. At Osthaus' request, Rohlfs moves to Hagen a year later. In 1903, in the newly opened Folkwang Museum, the artist sees works by contemporary French painters for the first time. In the same year he produced his first watercolours.
Rohlfs made the acquaintance of Dr. Kaesbach, an important patron of Expressionism, in 1904. In the same year the artist travelled to Soest for a working visit. The medieval churches and buildings of Soest can still be found in his works until the 1920s. During a stay in Soest in 1905 Rohlfs met Emil Nolde, with whom a close friendship quickly developed. From 1906 Rohlfs' works show an expressive painting style.

In 1909 his works are exhibited at the Folkwang Museum. In 1911 he became a member of the artists' group "Neue Secession" in Berlin and joined the "Freie Secession" in 1914.
Rohlfs married Helene Vogt in 1919. In the same year, on the occasion of his 70th birthday, special exhibitions are held at the Nationalgalerie in Berlin, the Kestner-Gesellschaft in Hanover and the Galerie Flechtheim in Düsseldorf. The public's positive response gives the artist new impetus. A special exhibition follows in 1920 at Paul Cassirer's art gallery in Berlin.
The city of Hagen makes Christian Rohlfs an honorary citizen in 1924. At the same time he becomes a member of the Prussian Academy of Arts. The Düsseldorf Art Academy appointed him an extraordinary member in 1925.

In 1927 the artist made his first trip to Ascona on Lake Maggiore, where he mainly spent the last decade of his life. There he met Marianne von Werefkin, among others. In 1929, the Christian-Rohlfs-Museum was founded in Hagen in honour of the 80-year-old (today Osthaus Museum Hagen).

In 1937 Rohlfs was declared "degenerate" by the National Socialists and all his works were removed from German museums. His last exhibition is held at the Galerie F. Möller in Cologne. On 8 January 1938 Christian Rohlfs died in Hagen. Various exhibitions are held in his memory in Switzerland.

Am Scheideweg, 1917, Oil on canvas, 124 × 118 cm

Hockenfeld, 1911, Watercolor and gouache on paper, 49,1 × 65,2 cm

Gladiole, 1928, Tempera on laid paper, 68 × 48 cm

Zwei Sitzende Figuren, 1919, Watercolor ink drawing on paper, 21,5 × 26,8 cm

Reiher, 1936, Tempera and chalk on vellum, 57 × 39 cm


Fall from a tree, sickbed for two years. The attending physician Dr. Stolle, brother-in-law of Theodor Storm, procures painting utensils.
Rohlfs visits Ludwig Pietsch in Berlin with a recommendation from Theodor Storm.
Studies at the Grand Ducal Academy in Weimar
Amputation of the right leg.
Study visits to Weißenfels and Dresden.
Apprenticeship with Alexander Struys.
Rohlfs is declared an independent artist on 15 June. He keeps his independent studio.
First signs of impressionistic loosening of the painting style.
Exhibition at the Akademie der Künste, Berlin.
Through the mediation of Henry van de Velde, first contact with Karl Ernst Osthaus in Hagen, who is busy preparing the foundation of the Folkwang Museum.
Relocation to Hagen to the Folkwang Museum under construction.
At the instigation of Hans Oldes on 25 December, retrospective award of the title of professor.
First watercolours
Acquaintance with Dr Kaesbach and Edvard Munch. Gives up the independent studio in Weimar. First visit to Soest.
Friendship with Emil Nolde.
Member of the "Sonderbund westdeutscher Kunstfreunde und Künstler" led by Karl Ernst Osthaus. First exhibition of the "Brücke" at the Folkwangmuseum Hagen.
First woodcuts.
Exhibition at the Folkwang Museum. Participation in the Sonderbund exhibition in Düsseldorf and in the black-and-white exhibition of the "Berliner Secession".
Participation in the Sonderbund exhibition in Düsseldorf.
Member of the "Neue Secession", Berlin.
Unable to work for several months due to the shock of the outbreak of war. Full member of the "Freie Secession", Berlin.
Marriage to Helene Vogt. Special exhibition on the occasion of her 70th birthday; Nationalgalerie, Berlin; Kestner-Gesellschaft, Hanover; Galerie A. Flechtheim, Düsseldorf.
Special exhibition at Paul Cassirer, Berlin.
Award of the Dr.-Ing. e. h. of the Technical University of Aachen.
Honorary citizen of the city of Hagen. Member of the Prussian Academy of Arts, Berlin.
Awarded the Dr. phil. h. c. of the University of Kiel. Associate member of the State Academy of Arts Düsseldorf.
First trip to Ascona on Lake Maggiore.
Rohlfs is considered "degenerate". Exhibition ban. Expelled from the Prussian Academy of Arts, Berlin. 412 of his works are confiscated from museum collections. Last exhibition at the Galerie F. Möller, Cologne.
He dies in Hagen on 8 January. Sales ban. Memorial exhibitions in Basel, Bern and Zurich.

Artist groups

November Group

The "Novembergruppe" was founded in Berlin in 1918, shortly after the November Revolution. Until its dissolution in 1933 when the National Socialists seized power, over 170 artists were members of this trend-setting movement. Initiated by Max Pechstein and César Klein, the association brought together artists working in the Expressionist, Futurist and Cubist movements such as Lyonel Feininger, Paul Klee, Alexej von Jawlensky, Willi Baumeister, Wassily Kandinsky, Otto Mueller and Christian Rohlfs. This syncretism also asserts itself in the unification of art, music, architecture, theatre and philosophy that the group advocates. Members asked for a say in matters of art policy, such as the acquisition of art for public collections, art policy and the provision of exhibition space.