Bold and eccentric, Emil Nolde is one of Germany's most famous expressionist painters. Upon his death 50 years ago, his home in Seebüll near the Danish border became a museum that's stark, idyllic -- and easy to miss.
Emil Nolde's self portrait
Craftsman and artistic avant-garde
Born in 1867, Emil Nolde was a trained wood-carver, who made furniture by day and took art lessons at night. He studied the French impressionists, older masters like Rembrandt, and took trips to visit artists in Denmark and Sweden. Nolde was looking for a new type of art -- genuinely German, uniquely his.
Worn by wind and weather: Emil Nolde
But he was almost 30 before he made his first paintings, which resemble his drawings and wood-cuts: grotesque figures with bold lines and strong contrasts. The style was new, and it inspired the nascent artist movement Die Brücke (The Bridge), who invited Nolde to join them in 1906. He was a member for just a year, preferring winter solitude in Berlin and summers by the sea.
Bright blue cityscapes, bombastic red floral gardens, pink, yellow and red nudes: Nolde's emotional use of color became his calling card. This was intensified after he and his wife, the Danish actress Ada Vilstrup, returned from an expedition to this South Seas in 1913/14.
Powerful poppies and bold brick
In 1927, the couple moved to Seebüll, a nearly non-existent farming settlement in Schleswig-Holstein, just minutes from the Danish border. It is hard to find, but each year, 78,000 adventurers do drive down the long country road leading to Nolde's home, now a museum, perched atop one of the few tiny hills in the area.
Color and contrast: Nolde's biography and his art
Amidst the wide plains typical for northern Germany, the building is like a brick fortress, with narrow windows and a flat roof. The artist consciously chose the modern Bauhaus-style design to distinguish it from his neighbors' Frisian thatched roofed farmhouses. Rich gardens surround the museum, with flowers -- red poppies and bright blue lilies -- so decidedly foreign to the region that they must be carefully sheltered from the strong winds that sweep up the hill. Here, Nolde said, he came to recuperate from the overwhelming abundance that was Berlin in the Roaring Twenties.
But in 1937, Seebüll became a retreat of a different kind. Along with other expressionists, the National Socialists proclaimed Emile Nolde a "degenerate artist" and confiscated his works. In 1941, they prohibited him from painting altogether.
In a secret room in his house, Nolde continued to paint watercolor sketches -- most of them no bigger than the palm of his hand. By the end of World War II, Nolde had completed more than 1,300 of these so-called "unpainted pictures." They are on display at the museum, as are the large-scale religion-inspired oil paintings Nolde worked on in the last years of his life.
Not just for art pilgrims any more
Ten years before his death on April 13, 1956, Emil Nolde and his wife established The Nolde Foundation Seebüll. Nolde wanted the museum to be a place where "intellectual pilgrims" could come for "happiness and artistic and spiritual relaxation."
Director Manfred Reuther wants to bring more visitors to enjoy Nolde's works
Over three and a half million art lovers have done so. But their admission fees of four euros ($4.83) do not nearly cover the maintenance costs. The foundation lives from the sale and reproduction royalties from Nolde's works. However, in 2026, the foundation's copyrights will expire.
This year, in preparation for that day, the foundation has built a new addition to the house, focusing on Nolde's life. It is also planning an extension in Berlin to focus on the artist's work there. Beginning in April, a new "Nolde Shuttle Bus" will also bring visitors from the island of Sylt, looking for a break from overcrowded beaches and sunburn, directly to the museum's door.