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Expressionist Portraits

Expressionist portraits reveal more than just what people look like.

The Poet Max Herrmann-Neisse

George Grosz
(American, born Germany. 1893–1959)

1927. Oil on canvas, 23 3/8 x 29 1/8" (59.4 x 74 cm)

George Grosz details the lines, bumps, veins, and ruddiness of his friend Max Herrmann-Neisse’s head and hands in this portrait, picturing him almost within arm’s reach. Herrmann-Neisse, a poet and Berlin’s leading cabaret critic, shared the same politics, sense of humor, and cynical outlook as Grosz.

Though Grosz was known for his harshly critical caricatures of corrupt figures, this portrait reveals a different side of the artist, capable of portraying his friend with sympathy. Using a softer palette, Grosz renders his friend’s face with a contemplative expression that perhaps reflects Herrmann-Neisse’s description of feeling “completely at home” in Grosz’s studio. The artist and his subject spent many hours there, in sessions that produced more than 30 preparatory drawings for this portrait. Grosz represents his friend’s distinctive features—his hunched back and bald head—without the distortion so typical of the Expressionists. Instead, such flourishes are reserved for the upturned furniture and floral patterning in the painting’s background.

1. The range of colors used by an artist in making a work of art; 2. A thin wooden or plastic board on which an artist holds and mixes paint.

A work of art made from paint applied to canvas, wood, paper, or another support (noun).

A work of art made with a pencil, pen, crayon, charcoal, or other implements, often consisting of lines and marks (noun); the act of producing a picture with pencil, pen, crayon, charcoal, or other implements (verb, gerund).

A representation of a particular individual, usually intended to capture their likeness or personality.

Encompasses varying stylistic approaches that emphasize intense personal expression. Renouncing the stiff bourgeois social values that prevailed at the turn of the 20th century, and rejecting the traditions of the state-sponsored art academies, Expressionist artists turned to boldly simplified or distorted forms and exaggerated, sometimes clashing colors. As Expressionism evolved from the beginning of the 20th century through the early 1920s, its crucial themes and genres reflected deeply humanistic concerns and an ambivalent attitude toward modernity, eventually confronting the devastating experience of World War I and its aftermath.

The area of an artwork that appears farthest away from the viewer; also, the area against which a figure or scene is placed.