© by Ingeborg & Dr. Wolfgang Henze-Ketterer, Wittrach/Bern


Portrait of Erna Wearing a Hat


Reed pen and bluish grey ink and pencil on white painted cardboard
Inv. No. 16242

50 × 38.1 cm

zur  Biographie

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner met his life partner of many years, Erna Schilling (1884–1945), in Berlin in 1912. Various portraits from the first years of their relationship show her striking features and severe pageboy hairstyle. In this reed pen drawing, however, Kirchner seems not so much interested in her characteristic appearance, nor in her gracefulness or charm, but rather in the state of her emotions. The long pen strokes make a rapidly executed and nervous impression, as do the small number of parallel curves with which he describes the slight inclination of the head. Agitatedly rubbed areas are used in the depiction of an eyebrow and the hair visible beneath the brim of her hat, which he has indicated with a few decorative squiggles. Her large, deep, dark eyes are lowered, giving them a look of resignation in contrast to the adjacent bundle of converging rays indicating her nose. The effect of her gaze as well as her firmly closed mouth – the narrow lips emphasized by two short lines one above the other – is to express a deep sadness. After employing the reed pen, above all to carry out the elements of the drawing essential for conveying the sitter’s emotional state, Kirchner turned to the use of pencil to integrate the figure into the surrounding space in a way that softens the mood. The interplay between the concentrated impact of the pen drawing in blue-grey ink and the light silver-grey of the graphite gives the portrait an aura of melancholy.


We know that it was Kirchner himself who, at the time when he made this drawing, was causing great anxiety to those close to him. In 1915, like Max Beckmann, he had been released from military service in the First World War after a nervous breakdown, but he was still haunted by the fear of reenlistment. Successive treatments in sanatoria in Königstein im Taunus and in Berlin were followed in 1917 by an initial stay in Davos. Before settling permanently in the Swiss mountains, where he was to live for a greater part of his life than anywhere else, he spent ten months at the Bellevue sanatorium in Kreuzlingen on Lake Constance in the autumn of 1917. Here efforts were made to improve his condition, though it was thought to be hopeless. It is tempting to interpret the sadness with which Erna is depicted in the portrait as a reflection of the artist’s own state of mind as well.


The Nazi confiscation of works of so-called »degenerate art« in 1937 dramatically reduced the holdings in the Städel collection. This and other Kirchner drawings donated from the artist’s estate, along with works of his from the Carl Hagemann Bequest, nowadays constitute one of the highlights among the works of twentieth-century art in the museum’s Department of Prints and Drawings.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Retrospective
23 April to 25 July 2010, Städel Annex, ground floor and upper level

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