Background: Max Beckmann was born on February 12, 1884 in Saxony, Germany. From his youth he pitted himself against the old masters. His traumatic experiences of World War I, in which he volunteered as a medical orderly, coincided with a dramatic transformation of his style from academically correct depictions to a distortion of both figure and space, reflecting his altered vision of himself and humanity.
Education: In 1925 he was selected to teach a master class at the Stadelschule Academy of Fine Art in Frankfurt. In 1927 he received the Honorary Empire Prize for German Art and the Gold Medal of the City of Dusseldorf; the National Gallery in Berlin acquired his painting The Bark and, in 1928, purchased his Self-Portrait in Tuxedo. By the early 1930s, a series of major exhibitions, including large retrospectives at the Städtische Kunsthalle Mannheim (1928) and in Basle and Zurich (1930) together with numerous publications, showed the high esteem in which Beckmann was held.
Achievements: His fortunes changed with the rise to power of Adolph Hitler, whose dislike of Modern Art quickly led to its suppression by the state. In 1933, the Nazi government called Beckmann a “cultural Bolshevik” and dismissed him from his teaching position at the Art School in Frankfurt. In 1937 more than 500 of his works were confiscated from German museums, and several of these works were put on display in the notorious Degenerate Art exhibition in Munich. The day after Hitler’s infamous radio speech about degenerate art in 1937, Beckmann left Germany with his second wife, Quappi. For ten years, Beckmann lived in poverty in self-imposed exile in Amsterdam, failing in his desperate attempts to obtain a visa for the US. In 1944 the Germans attempted to draft him into the army, despite the fact that the sixty-year-old artist had suffered a heart attack. The works completed in his Amsterdam studio were even more powerful and intense than the ones of his master years in Frankfurt, and included several large triptychs, which stand as a summation of Beckmann’s art.
After the war, Beckmann moved to the United States, and during the last three years of his life, he taught at the art schools of Washington University in St. Louis (with the German-American painter and printmaker Werner Drewes) and the Brooklyn Museum. Beckmann came to St. Louis at the invitation of Perry T. Rathbone, who was then director of the Saint Louis Art Museum. Rathbone arranged for Washington University in St. Louis to hire Beckmann as an art teacher. The first Beckmann retrospective in the United States took place in 1948 at the City Art Museum, Saint Louis.
In St. Louis, Morton D. May became his patron and, already an avid amateur photographer and painter, a student of the artist. Beckmann also helped him learn to appreciate Oceanian and African art. After stops in Denver and Chicago, he and Quappi later took an apartment at 38 West 69th Street in Manhattan. He suffered from angina pectoris and died after Christmas 1950, struck down by a heart attack at the corner of 61st Street and Central Park West in New York, not far from his apartment building. As the artist’s widow recalled, he was on his way to see one of his own paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.