Max Beckmann was the youngest child born to Carl and Antonie Beckmann in February 1884. From an early age, Beckmann demonstrated artistic talent. In October 1900, he enrolled at the Weimar Grand Ducal Art Academy at age sixteen. He completed his studies three years later and subsequently moved to Paris where he was deeply impressed by the work of Paul Cézanne. In 1904, he returned to Germany and settled in Berlin. He began exhibiting work with the Berlin Secession in 1906 and remained involved with the group until 1913. He joined the Secession’s board as its youngest member in 1910. While in Berlin, Beckmann’s work was shown at the gallery of Paul Cassirer, an important promoter of modern art.
With the outbreak of World War I, Beckmann spent time in East Prussia as a volunteer nurse in 1914. Beckmann was profoundly affected by his experience in the war even though his involvement was short-lived. In October 1914, in a letter to his wife Minna he wrote: “…my will to live is for the moment stronger than ever, even though I have already experienced dreadful things and died myself with them several times. Yet the more one dies, the more intensely one lives. I have been drawing, that protects one from death and danger.” The following year, he served as a medical orderly in Belgium. In July 1915, he suffered a nervous breakdown and was discharged from service in 1917.
Beckmann moved to Frankfurt to recover and his work changed as a result of the war. The more painterly and romantic compositions of the pre-war years were replaced with more angular forms. His palette became darker and his use of paint more subdued. In August 1918, he wrote a “Creative Credo,” where he defined his position in the current difficult times and indicated his intention to “be part of all the misery that is coming.” His post-war subjects were often more violent, confronted political intolerance, and exposed poverty and social injustice.
In 1925, he began teaching a master class at the Städelschule/Kunstgewerbeschule (Städel School/School of Applied Arts) in Frankfurt. Simultaneous with this, he achieved widespread critical and commercial success. Until the early 1930s, Beckmann was represented in numerous exhibitions in Europe and America and his work entered important museum and private collections in the United States and on the continent. Beckmann was recognized as one of the leading artists of his generation practicing in a new realist style termed Neue Sachlichkeit, or New Objectivity. He was prominently featured in Gustav Hartlaub’s seminal survey on the Neue Sachlichket held at the Kunsthalle Mannheim in 1924.
With the increasing dominance of the National Socialist party in Germany in the early 1930s, modern art came under frequent attack. Beginning in 1933, exhibitions of modern art toured several German cities, which included work by Beckmann and others, with the purpose to defame him and his contemporaries. Ludwig Justi, the director of the Nationalgalerie Berlin, tried in vain to protect the modern collection. In 1932 he had established a Beckmann room at the Kronprinzen-Palais (created as a museum of contemporary art). When Adolf Hitler assumed power in January 1933, Justi was dismissed and the Beckmann room closed. Soon thereafter, Beckmann’s work was among that rounded up from German museums and pilloried in the Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) exhibition which opened in Munich in 1937 and toured throughout Germany until 1939.
Beckmann lost his teaching position in April 1933. Although Beckmann tried to keep a low profile and remained in Germany until 1937, on the day the Entartete Kunst exhibition opened in Munich, Beckmann, and his second wife Quappi left for Amsterdam and never returned to Germany.
During his period of exile, Beckmann was extremely prolific. He created over two hundred and fifty paintings during this period and continued to teach as well. Beckmann joined a large exile community and remained in contact with his supporters during this time. Self-Portraits, which had always been an important genre in his work, continued to be a focus. In 1938, he was invited to give a speech at London’s New Burlington Galleries in conjunction with the Exhibition of Twentieth Century German Art which had been organized as a response to the Entartete Kunst exhibition. In this speech, Beckmann explained his exploration of the self: “As we still do not know what the self really is, this self in which you and I in our various ways are expressed, we must peer deeper and deeper into its discovery. For the self is the greatest veiled mystery of the world.”
In September 1947, Beckmann moved to America and took up a teaching position at the Washington University Art School in Saint Louis. He remained there until autumn 1949 when he accepted a teaching position at the Brooklyn Museum Art School. He died of a heart attack in December 1950 on his way to see his Self-Portrait in Blue Jacket installed in an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.