Anita Rée

Anita Rée, Selbstbildnis, um 1913
Courtesy Hamburger Kunsthalle
1885 – 1933 / German avant-gardist painter

Growing up in the art and culture scene

Anita Rées’ father is a merchant from a Jewish family rich in tradition, her mother is from Venezuela. The family is wealthy and well-connected in Hamburg’s art and cultural scene. Anita Rée, born in 1885, receives a basic artistic education as a “higher daughter”:

“Young Anita’s first drawing efforts were supported, because it’s always a good skill to have, even at the wedding market, when such a girl is skillful and is able to bring a little something into the marriage. Someone who is able to talk or plonk away at the evening party, to put it bluntly. But I’m sure people were surprised when she said, “No, that’s my job, that’s my life, that’s how I imagine it!”
Karin Schick, Director of the Hamburger Kunsthalle
Her Path to Professional Painting

Rée’s serious. She takes private lessons with Arthur Siebelist, works with Franz Nölken and Friedrich Ahlers-Hestermann, and ventures to Paris to study nude painting. Inspired by Fernand Léger, Picasso, Matisse and Cézanne, as well as by the old masters, she turns all these impressions into her very own unique style.

Anita Rée, Blaue Frau, Vor 1919
Courtesy Hamburger Kunsthalle
The Painter of Hamburg

Back in Germany, she was one of the founding members of the Hamburg Secession and joined the Hamburg Artists Association in 1920. The portraits and self-portraits of Anita Rées were intriguing Hamburg’s society back then and still impress today with their subtlety and depth. In her pictures, she approaches the foreign, the strange in other places, other people and herself. The thematic focus of her work is the existential question of one’s own identity.

“She draws like a man!”

are said to be the words painter’s colleague Franz Nölken used to comment on Rées extraordinary skills. Her work is also well received elsewhere: In the 1920s and early 1930s, Rée exhibited in Hamburg, Paris and Positano, Italy. Her works even made it to Scandinavia and Cambridge, England.

Political Persecution under National Socialism

However, with the rise of National Socialism in Germany, the artist’s success ceased. Although Rée grew up Protestant, her Jewish descent became her undoing. Commissions were withdrawn and in 1933 she was expelled from the Hamburg Art Society as a member “foreign to the species”. She had already left the city by that time. In 1933, she took her own life.

Selbstbildnis Anita Rée, 1930
Courtesy Hamburger Kunsthalle
“I can no longer find my way in such a world, to which I no longer belong and I have no desire but to leave it. What is the point – without a family, without the once loved art and without any people – to continue to vegetate alone in such an indescribable, madness-riddled world . . . ?”
Anita Rée in her farewell letter to her sister before commiting suicide in 1933

Rescuing her works

After her death, her work continued to be defamed by the National Socialists. Her works were deemed “bastardly” and degenerate and were to be removed from the collection rooms of the Hamburger Kunsthalle in 1937. By then, however, they were already in a safe hiding place: Wilhelm Werner, the caretaker of the Hamburger Kunsthalle, had secretly taken them to his own apartment in the summer of the same year. After 1945, he quietly reinstated the seven works into the depot inventory.