Käthe Kollwitz

Käthe Kollwitz, Selbstportrait, 1923
Courtesy Honolulu Museum of Art
1867 – 1945 / German expressionist and realist graphic artist and sculptor
Growing up and first training

Käthe Kollwitz was born in 1867 in Königsberg (Prussia). She grew up in a free-spirited family, which promoted her drawing talent and enabled her to get an artistic education. Kollwitz first studied in Königsberg and later also at art schools in Berlin, Munich, and Paris.


Her family supported her work as an artist so thoroughly that Kollwitz’s father was disappointed by her marriage to doctor Karl Kollwitz in 1891, fearing that this would be the end of his daughter’s artistic career. However, Kollwitz continues to be artistically active. Together with her husband and two sons, she lives and works in Prenzlauer Berg, a working-class district in Berlin.

Breakthrough in Berlin

In Berlin, she achieves her artistic breakthrough with the exhibition of her graphic cycle “A Weberaufstand” at the Great Berlin Art Exhibition in 1898. However, the emperor refuses to award her extraordinary work with a gold medal, because she is a woman.

Politically convinced – also in her art

Increasingly, Kollwitz transforms her graphic arts into an instrument of social and political engagement, for example through her work for the satire magazine Simplicissimus. She grapples with the ideas of the women’s rights movement and becomes a socialist. The death of her son in the First World War deeply affects Kollwitz, influencing her further artistic work and causing her to become a pacifist.

Käthe Kollwitz, Pietà, 1938/39
Germany’s most famous artist

Already during her lifetime, the graphic designer, painter and sculptor is regarded as Germany’s most famous artistic export and is particularly well known in the USA. In 1899, she joins the oppositional group of artists “Berliner Secession”. In 1919, she became the first female member of the Prussian Academy of Arts, and ten years later she also became the first woman to be awarded the medal “Pour le Mérite für Wissenschaften und Künste”, which is considered the highest award of the Weimar Republic. She exhibits internationally and her art is already bought by collectors during her lifetime.

Political Persecution under National Socialism

With the rise of National Socialism, Kollwitz’s deeply political artistic work had to come to a halt. Like fellow artist and political activist Heinrich Mann, Kollwitz was forced to resign from the Prussian Academy of Arts in 1933. Exhibitions of Kollwitz’s art are vehemently prohibited in Germany, which is tantamount to an exhibition ban. After the death of her husband, Kollwitz leaves Berlin in 1943 and dies in 1945 shortly before the end of the Second World War.

An exception to the rule

While many of her contemporaries were completely omitted from art history, Käthe Kollwitz fortunately remains world-famous today, making her a famous exception to the rule.