Käthe Kollwitz was born in 1867 in Königsberg, East Prussia, as Käthe Schmidt, the granddaughter of Julius Rupp, the founder of the liberal Protestant Free Religious Congregation and the daughter of Karl Schmidt, a member of Germany's Social Democratic Party.
Encouraged by her father to become an artist, she trained with private teachers (since women were not admitted into the official art academies) and at seventeen went to Berlin to study at the Berlin Women's Art Union. Her teacher in Berlin, Karl Stauffer-Bern, recognized her exceptional talent for drawing and encouraged her to focus on drawing and printmaking.
In 1891, she married Karl Kollwitz, a medical doctor and social democrat. The couple moved into a tenement district of Berlin, where Karl Kollwitz worked as a physician for a health insurance concern for the tailors' guild, and Käthe Kollwitz observed at first hand the lives of the urban poor, especially women.
She showed her work publicly in Berlin for the first time in 1893, at the Berlin Academy's annual Great Berlin Art Exhibition. In 1898, she returned to this exhibition with her print series A Weavers' Rebellion. The jury voted her a gold medal, which the Minister of Culture and Emperor Wilhelm II subsequently refused to award, on the grounds that her work was objectionable in its unsentimental subject matter and gritty style, and that she was a woman.
Kollwitz won increasing recognition over the next years, receiving a commission in 1903 from the Society for Historical Art for the series Peasants' War, winning the Villa Romana Prize in 1907 for study in Florence, and making drawings in 1909 and 1910 for the satirical magazine Simplicissimus.
In 1919, after the establishment of the Republic, she became the first woman to be appointed a professor at the Berlin Academy of Art, which admitted female students by that time.
But she had been profoundly affected by the First World War, which had claimed the life of her son Peter, and throughout the 1920s she devoted much of her energy to making art that addressed immediate social and political issues. As a memorial to Peter, she created sculptures of mourning parents, which were installed in 1932 in Belgium, where he had died.
With the rise to power of the Nazis, Kollwitz was forced out of the Berlin Academy and threatened with deportation to a concentration camp. She began her last print series, Death, in 1934.
Her husband Karl died in 1940; her grandson Peter was killed in combat in 1942. Kollwitz left Berlin the following year and ultimately found refuge outside Dresden in a small house that was offered to her by Prince Ernst Heinrich of Saxony. She died there in April 1945, only a few weeks before the Nazi surrender.
"Some day a new ideal will arise and there will be an end of all wars," she said at the time of her death. "People will have to work hard for that new state of things, but they will achieve it."Selected Bibliography