1864 – 1944 / Modernist German painter and graphic artist
When the conflict between academic and modern art openly erupted in around 1890, it led to the founding of the Berlin Succession under the leadership of Max Liebermann in 1898. Four female artists were also among its founders—one of whom was Julie Wolfthorn. While Liebermann’s name dominates art-historical references and his work is viewed as part of the European artistic canon, Julie Wolfthorn remains virtually forgotten. Yet alongside Dora Hinz and Käthe Kollwitz, she was one of the most prolific and well-known female German artists at the dawn of the 20th century.
A talented young woman heading resolutely down her own path. In 1890, after the early death of her parents, Wolfthorn began studying painting in Berlin, but was soon lured by the call of freedom and moved to Paris. There she continued her studies at Académie Colarossi, a private art school. Her time at the academy provided invaluable impetus for her work and brought her into contact with like-minded artists from her homeland, such as Ida Gerhardi and Jelka Rosen. She returned to Berlin in 1893, but she would be drawn to the city on the Seine for many years to come. Wolfthorn took part in numerous exhibitions in places such as Munich, Hamburg, Weimar, and at the Große Berliner Kunstausstellung (Great Berlin Art Exhibition).
She knew how to network and was active in many associations – including Deutscher Künstlerbund, Verbindung Bildender Künstlerinnen, Künstlerinnenvereinigung München, Hiddenseer Künstlerinnenbund – and helped shape reformist culture in Berlin. Together with Käthe Kollwitz and other women, Wolfthorn campaigned for the professionalization of the artists’ profession, for women’s right to vote, and for the abolition of Paragraph 218 of the German penal code, which outlawed abortion.
She was soon established as a sought-after portrait painter and captured the who’s who of society on canvas. Max Liebermann valued her work and arranged commissions and exhibitions for her. Based in Berlin but with a restless soul, the artist often took part in study trips to artists’ colonies, travelled to Worpswede, Dachau, Hiddensee, Schreiberhau, to Ascona, Belgium, Holland, and France. The Nationalgalerie and other Berlin museums acquired her art, and prints of her work in newspapers and magazines helped her gain recognition amongst the general public.
When we look back at Julie Wolfthorn’s life today, we see an artist of great distinction, yet without reputation. On the one hand, the fact that Wolfthorn fell into obscurity is due to the long-standing, systematic disregard of women artists by art historians. On the other hand, the artist’s biography is to blame. As a politically active Jew, her life changed drastically when the National Socialists came to power and the persecution of Jews began. She became increasingly excluded from her profession and society and was deported to Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1942 at nearly 80 years of age. She survived in the camp for almost two years and continued to work, albeit secretly. She died in 1944. Her last message, written on a postcard to a friend just before she and her sister were deported, read: “Don’t forget us!” – A wish that has not come true for the once renowned artist. At least not yet!