German Art

German art and architecture

German art and architecture, artistic works produced within the region that became politically unified as Germany in 1871 generally followed the stylistic currents of Western Europe.

The Carolingian and Ottonian Periods

Carolingian architecture and art are commonly considered to have been the earliest manifestations of discernibly Germanic art. As the center of Charlemagne's empire, the Rhineland was the home of the massive palace chapel at Aachen (c.800), decorated with mosaics, and of contemporary churches such as the one at Fulda. Many of these show the revival of early Christian plans (see Early Christian art and architecture). Carolingian ivory book covers and diptychs were also notable.

The first outstanding examples of German painting and sculpture were created (c.960–c.1060) during the Ottonian dynasty. Splendid manuscripts, enriched by illuminations remarkable for their force of linear expression, issued from the school of Reichenau (e.g., the Gospels of Otto III, State Library, Munich), while in Cologne miniature painting exhibited a brilliant use of color. Fine craftsmanship is apparent in the metalwork of this period, from the small objects produced by the goldsmiths of Mainz to more massive achievements, such as the bronze doors (1015) for the Church of St. Michael at Hildesheim. The architecture of St. Michael's exemplifies a tendency in Ottonian buildings toward the development of a complex ground plan. A highly rational system was devised of dividing the church into a series of separate units, a method that was to be of consequence in Romanesque design.

The Romanesque and Gothic Periods

Romanesque architecture and art flourished in Germany, and the cathedrals in basilica form at Worms, Mainz, and Speyer typify the characteristic divisive style of the period. Little remains of Romanesque fresco painting, of which Regensburg and Salzburg were major Germanic centers.

With the diffusion of the French Gothic style throughout Europe (see Gothic architecture and art), notable contributions were made by the Germans. The magnificent sculpture of the portals for the cathedrals at Bamberg, Strasbourg, and Naumburg was executed during the first half of the 13th cent. French influence is most strongly revealed in the cathedral of Cologne (c.1250). Modifying the French emphasis on decoration, however, the Germans built simpler, unadorned piers and evolved a more unified, spacious form of church. This style may be seen in the Church of St. Sebald (c.1370), Nuremberg, or in the cathedral (c.1470) at Munich.

The Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries

Outstanding German sculpture was created in the late 15th cent. with the powerfully realistic works, particularly in wooden altarpieces, of Peter Vischer the elder, Veit Stoss, Adam Kraft, and Tilman Riemenschneider. Active both as a sculptor and as a painter, Hans Multscher established the Swabian school. In the late 15th and early 16th cent., manuscript illumination and fresco painting declined as stained glass technique and panel painting became highly developed.

The refined paintings of Stephan Lochner are among those that reflect Flemish influence, particularly of the van Eycks and of Rogier van der Weyden. Martin Schongauer, painting at the same time, developed a more individual style, characterized by delicate and curving lines. Hans Holbein the elder, and Michael Pacher were among the other major 15th-century figures. The artistic genius of the century was Albrecht Dürer. His paintings, woodcuts, and engravings were produced at an unprecedented level of perfection, influencing all European art of the time. He visited Venice and was chiefly responsible for bringing elements of the Italian Renaissance style to Germany.

Painting in the 16th cent. was at its height in Germany and led all other arts. Hans Holbein the younger, Mathias Grünewald (creator of the last major Gothic altarpiece), Albrecht Altdorfer (who brought pure landscape painting into vogue), Lucas Cranach the elder, and Hans Baldung were the great masters of the age. Gothic architecture prevailed so long in Germany that when the Church of St. Michael's in Munich was built (c.1590), the Renaissance and mannerist periods had already ended, and early baroque churches, heavily influenced by Italian design, were being constructed.

The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries

Some of Germany's finest buildings date from the 17th and 18th cent.—exuberant baroque and rococo churches and palaces that are marvels of lightness and spatial complexity. Among the best are the works of the Austrian Fischer von Erlach. Ceiling decoration was widely practiced. The rococo style came to the fore c.1730, with the Tischbein family and Angelica Kauffmann its chief exponents in painting. At this time, too, small Dresden china figures and groups became very popular, with the workshops at Meissen producing exquisite miniature statuettes of genre subjects. A. R. Mengs's work marked the widespread revival of classicism modeled on the theories of J. J. Winckelmann and on the art of Rome. Meanwhile, the monumental sculptures of J. G. Schadow were regarded as the model for a century of subsequent German plastic art.

The Nineteenth Century

In the early part of the century J. F. Overbeck, Schadow-Godenhaus, Peter von Cornelius, and Schnorr von Carolsfeld banded together to form the group of Nazarenes active in Rome. Alfred Rethel became a leader of a school of German historical painting. He and the realist A. F. E. von Menzel executed woodcuts as well and were responsible for the 19th-century revival of the medium. The Biedermeier period brought to the fore such genre painters as Moritz von Schwind and Carl Spitzweg. In the late 19th cent. a new wave of romanticism emerged that had been foreshadowed by the desolate landscapes of C. D. Friedrich and the complex allegories of P. O. Runge. Romanticism was exemplified in architecture by K. F. Schinkel. Romantic painters who were influenced by Italian art included Anselm von Feuerbach and Hans von Marées.

The Twentieth Century

The sentimental genre scenes and derivative neoclassic artistic production of the 19th cent. were replaced in the 20th cent. by a fresh, more vital sensibility. In the early years of the century the influence of Gauguin was strong. At the same time, English art nouveau design innovations were adopted in the applied arts in Germany and termed jugendstil.

The wave of 20th-century masters that emerged from the Berlin secession, led by Max Liebermann, created an art known as expressionism for its purposeful distortion of natural forms. The expressionist movement came in three waves: the first, the Brücke (1905), included E. L. Kirchner and Emil Nolde; the Blaue Reiter (1911) attracted several foreign artists, such as Paul Klee, Lyonel Feininger, and Wassily Kandinsky; and in the 1920s Otto Dix and Max Beckmann were principal exponents of the disenchanted realism called the new objectivity. Artists working in related styles included Oskar Kokoschka and Käthe Kollwitz.

Several of these same artists also taught at the Bauhaus, led by Walter Gropius and later by Miës van der Rohe. This establishment became the chief breeding place of functionalism and encouraged experimentation and abstraction with the ideal of combining artistic beauty with usefulness. The Nazi regime, however, regarding abstract and expressionist works as degenerate, discouraged and destroyed any but heroic, propagandistic art, and the Germany of the 1930s and early 40s produced nothing of artistic significance. The Bauhaus aesthetic was taught and practiced in the United States by European expatriates and their disciples, while German architecture, massive and dull, glorified the Nazi style. In the period since World War II the dominant architectural designers have included Hans Scharoun, Helmut Striffler, Werner Duttmann, and Gottfried Bohm. The abstract movement has been led by Willi Baumeister, Theodore Werner, Fritz Winter, E. W. Nay, Winfred Gaul, and G. K. Pfaher.


See F. Novotny, Painting and Sculpture in Europe, 1780–1880 (1960); F. Roh, German Art in the 20th Century (tr. 1968); G. Lindemann, History of German Art (tr. 1971); J. Weinstein, The End of Expressionism (1989).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

German Art: Selected full-text books and articles

German Art of the Twentieth Century By Werner Haftmann; Alfred Hentzen; William S. Lieberman; Andrew Carnduff Ritchie Museum of Modern Art, 1957
FREE! German Masters of Art By Helen A. Dickinson Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1914
The German School By Michael Levey Publications Dept. National Gallery, 1959
German Painting in Our Time By Gerhard Händler Rembrandt-Verlag, 1956
German Painting, XIV-XVI Centuries By Alfred Stange Hyperion Press, 1950
The German Expressionists: A Generation in Revolt By Bernard S. Myers Frederick A. Praeger, 1966
Princes and Propaganda: Electoral Saxon Art of the Reformation By Carl C. Christensen Sixteenth Century Journal Publishers, 1992
German Architecture for a Mass Audience By Kathleen James-Chakraborty Routledge, 2000
The Faustian Bargain: The Art World in Nazi Germany By Jonathan Petropoulos Oxford University Press, 2000
Other Germanies: Questioning Identity in Women's Literature and Art By Karen Jankowsky; Carla Love State University of New York Press, 1997
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