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Max Beckmann: Art and the City

Learn about the artist’s relationship with New York City, as shown in the exhibition "Max Beckmann in New York"

In 1949, artist Max Beckmann detailed his life in New York City in a letter to his son: “New York is actually not a city but a vast jungle that to explore and get to know would take an entire lifetime. During the past six weeks I have barely become acquainted with its outer borders, but I keep on working to get to know this monster.” Born in Germany in 1884, Beckmann had recently moved to New York from Saint Louis, Missouri, where he had lived for two years prior while teaching at the College of Art at Washington University.

In many ways, this short excerpt exemplifies the artist’s relationship with New York City, and the budding relationship that many newcomers from near and far experience as they integrate themselves into the vibrant energy of the city that never sleeps.

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“Beginning” by Max Beckmann (German, Leipzig 1884–1950 New York) oil on canvas ca. 1949. From the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. © 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

 

The Museum’s new exhibition, Max Beckmann in New York, features 14 paintings that Beckmann painted while living in New York from 1949 until his death in 1950, as well as 25 works he painted from 1920 to 1948 that are housed in New York collections. This diverse group of artworks—self-portraits, interiors, landscapes, portraits, and triptychs—gives the viewer a window into Beckmann’s life.

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“Paris Society ( Gesellschaft Paris )” by Max Beckmann (German, Leipzig 1884–1950 New York) oil on canvas ca. 1931. From the collection of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. © 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

 

A constant explorer of his surroundings, Beckmann was well known for taking daily walks in New York City, covering long distances from his home and studio to locations ranging from Central Park to Chinatown and back. Though he frequented elegant hotels and bars such as Manhattan’s Plaza Hotel, and was known to associate with influential writers, critics, publishers, and art collectors, the artist also indulged his taste for less fashionable nightclubs, the circus, and cabarets.

One can imagine that Beckmann was truly engrossed in his encounters with all that he walked past in the city, the performances he attended, the books he read, and more, and that his range of experiences and the incredible cast of characters he interacted with contributed to the incredible energy of his paintings—sometimes sinister, sometimes playful, sometimes serious—but always highly emotive.

Another great pleasure of Beckmann’s was visiting The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the city’s many galleries and museums. In December of 1950, Beckmann left his apartment on the Upper West Side to see his painting Self-Portrait in Blue Jacket (1950), which was on view at The Met in the exhibition American Painting Today. However, on the corner of 69th street and Central Park West, he suffered a fatal heart attack and never made it to the Museum.

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“Self Portrait” by Max Beckmann (German, Leipzig 1884–1950 New York) oil on canvas ca. 1950. From the collection of The Saint Louis Art Museum. © 2005 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, NY / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

 

This tragic incident served as inspiration for The Met exhibition, lending the visitor an understanding of the art Beckmann created while living in the city, as well as those works that had been collected by New Yorkers prior to his arrival. Before he moved to New York, Beckmann was represented by local dealers J.B. Neumann and Curt Valentin, who sold his work to various collectors including Alfred H. Barr, the director of the Museum of Modern Art from 1929 to 1943. A selection of those works is included in the exhibition, among others.

To learn more, visit or shop our exhibition catalogue online at The Met Store by clicking here.

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