Freeman's
Emile Nolde (German 1867-1956) “Eule,” Sold for $100,000

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Anne Henry
Vice President | Senior Specialist

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Published: 14 April 2015

Emile Nolde's "Eule" | A Story of Survival & Friendship

Freeman's is pleased to offer Emil Nolde's watercolor "Eule," a work of art whose story is as extraordinary as the piece itself, in our forthcoming auction Modern & Contemporary Art on 3 May 2015.

In February of 1944, when Emil Nolde’s Berlin studio was bombed by Allied Forces, many of the artist’s prized prints, paintings and drawings were amongst the casualties of the concentrated air campaign launched against the German capital.  Meanwhile however, buried safely in a cellar in Dresden remained 150 of Nolde’s most valued watercolors. He had entrusted them to his close friends, Frederik and Annie Gottlieb, in the hopes of protecting them from the Nazi’s attempt to purge all experimental or “Entartete Kunst” (degenerate art).  Shortly after Nolde gave these watercolors to the Gottliebs, the family was forced to flee to Switzerland, and yet were able to bring the artist’s watercolors with them. Sadly, their own extensive art collection and home was destroyed during the Dresden bombing campaign.  After the war, when Nolde came to reclaim his art from the Gottliebs in their new Swiss home, he gave each member of the family one of these “aquarelles” as a token of his gratitude.  "Eule (The Owl)," chosen by the present owner’s father, is one of a series of watercolors the artist painted at the Berlin zoo in 1923/24 well before the war. It has remained in their possession since, representing a rich history of sacrifice, friendship and perseverance. 

Watercolor played a significant role in the development of Nolde’s artistic style. His first divergence from conventional painting began in the 1890s while painting a vivid red sunrise with watercolors.  The medium allowed for expressive color and spontaneity:  two qualities that would soon redefine the artist’s oeuvre. Nolde would start each watercolor without any preliminary drawing, allowing the composition to grow out of the color and emerge from his imagination.[1] In the words of his wife, “When painting, he is lavish with his watercolors. He is little troubled if splotches fall from his brush…I have often marveled at how reckless he is with the wet brushes, even though he could fear at any moment one of the threatening drips might fall… he takes that danger in his stride and accordingly is free to work in a rush, with no inhibitions…”[2]

Watercolor was also tied closely to the artist’s survival during his years under Nazi rule. In 1939, Nolde was excluded from the State Chamber of Fine Arts. Shortly thereafter, in August of 1941 German law branded him a degenerate artist, labeling his “expressive distortions and non-realistic heightening of colors,” as culturally irresponsible.  Along with artists such as Edwin Scharff and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Nolde’s existing art was confiscated and banned from view and he was placed under close police surveillance to ensure he did not continue to produce.  In direct opposition to these laws, Nolde turned to watercolor as a means of continuing his art in secret, since the smell of oil paints would not attract unwanted attention. Although filled with anxiety, the years under Nazi rule were his most productive, and the medium acted as a cathartic outlet which eased his depression and anxiety. By the end of the war, Nolde had produced approximately 1,300 watercolors.  As a result, he is a pivotal figure in the revival of this medium, which has since been recognized as one of the great triumphs of 20th century German art.[3]

Exhibition for our 3 May auction Modern & Contemporary Art  opens to the public on Wednesday, 29 April at 10:00am. We invite you to visit us at 1808 Chestnut Street in Rittenhouse Square to preview this remarkable watercolor, and other works of art being offered in person.

This work sold for $100,000 in the 3 May 2015 auction Modern & Contemporary Art 


[1] Werner Haftmann, Emil Nolde: Unpainted Pictures, (New York: Praeger, 1965).

[2] S. Koja, “A Notion Solely of Radiance and Color,” in Emil Nolde: In Radiance and Color, ed. A. Husslein-Arco and S. Koja (Munich: Hirmer, 2013), 223.

[3] Ibid, 225-232.

 

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