Ernst Oppler - German Impressionist

Woman in Orchard Reaching for Fruit, c. 1920s. Oil on canvas, 24 x 20 inches. Collection of Foosaner Art Museum, Florida Institute of Technology. Gift of Susan Oppler Wood, 86.3.94
Ernst Oppler (1867–1929) was a German-Jewish Impressionist painter and printmaker. The oldest son of four, Oppler’s father was a renowned architect in Hanover, Germany. He became a pupil of Ludwig von Löfftz (1845-1910) at the academy of arts in Munich. In 1894, he moved to London and was greatly influenced by the work of James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903); he later traveled throughout Holland and France in pursuit of his artistic studies and then settled in Berlin where he became a member of the Berlin Secession.

The Berlin Secession was an organization founded by artists in 1898 as an alternative to the conservative state-run Association of Berlin Artists. At the time artists had to submit their work for exhibition inclusion. In 1898, a landscape painting by Walter Leistikow was rejected by the official salon jury. A group of Berlin artists supportive of modernist trends, led by Leistikow, broke away from the Association and founded the Secession.

Oppler regularly participated in the exhibitions of the Berlin secession until 1912. He painted landscapes, interior views and portraits and became a well-known and much sought-after portraitist.

From 1912 he devoted himself to documenting the dance performances of the Russian ballet which was very popular at that time in Berlin. He became one of the most important chroniclers of the history of ballet in Germany. From the master drawings he made during the performances and behind the scenes, he created expressive and skillfully worked out etchings. He invented a special lighted pen that he used to draw in the dark theatre. Later works document scenes of the social life of the city of Berlin.

Oppler, who mainly followed the example set by Lovis Corinth (1858-1925), is regarded as a representative of German Impressionism. Today his estate is part of the German Dance Archives in Cologne, but the largest repository of his work is in the permanent collection of the Foosaner Art Museum.

The Life of Ernst Oppler

1867: Born in Hanover

1880: Death of father, Edwin Oppler. (Ernst is 11.)

1886: Graduates high school. There is a change of government in Bavaria (the impact is not particularly noticeable for Oppler specifically, though under the new rulers, there is an increased focus on and support for the arts.) In the summer, Oppler attends a semester of private teaching with Paul Nauen and applies for the winter semester at the Academy of Fine Arts. He is enrolled Oct. 18.

1890: 2nd Annual Exhibition of Munich Art allows Oppler to see works by famous and upcoming impressionists—including Whistler.

1891: Takes a trip to N Germany to work on paintings.

1892: Moves to Schwabing in Munich (at the time a well-known bohemian neighborhood). 4th Annual Exhibition of Munich Art includes two Oppler paintings, signaling the “debut” of his career. Becomes a part of the Group of 24 (also called the Free Association XXIV), a collection of Munich artists joined up in order to get their art out to the public.

1893: Reverie—one of the two paintings shown in the 4th Annual Exhibition of Munich Art—is sent to the World’s Fair in Chicago. He also exhibits in Hanover, Berlin, Dresden, and Hamburg, mostly in shows organized by Secessionist artists.

1894: In the spring, he participates in a Secession exhibition with 2 paintings. In the summer, he finishes with his Academy schooling and travels to London.

1895: Moves to Kensington. Has pieces in the 34th Exhibition of Modern Artists in Glasgow.

1896: Creates his first known lithograph and begins printmaking. Also makes numerous portraits of women. Participates in Salon in Paris and exhibits in Munich, Glasgow, Manchester, Birmingham, and Liverpool.

1897: Starts making color lithographs. Leaves London to return to Hanover (reasons unknown).

1898: Returns to London and he joins up with other artists (including the Glasgow Boys and a number of French Impressionists) with the aim of organizing international exhibitions for the new artistic ideas and methods of the time. The work he produces during this time is reminiscent of Whistler’s paintings.

1899: Moves to Chelsea and creates one of his more famous paintings, Music.  Travels to Belgium and Holland in the summer and paints more Dutch interiors.

1900: Probably spends most of his time in London. Traveling is not known but most of the works he produces during this time are interiors done in a 17th century Dutch style with focus on light and shadow.

1901-2: Moves to Sluis, a small town in the south of Holland. His “Holland-mode” style (refers to the channeling of 17th century Dutch paintings) is in full swing. He paints The Seamstress and The Letter, both of which show the adoption of Vermeer-style Dutch painting over the English style. Also most likely creates first copper etching during this time-- The Little Shop in Sluis.

1903: Makes a series of self-portraits.  Moves between Hanover and England, likely spending the summers in Sluis. Continues painting commissioned portraits.

1905: Leaves Holland for Berlin, now an important cultural center in Germany. Shows in numerous exhibitions and joins up with the Berlin Secessionist group.

1906: Spends summer in Belgium and France. In Normandy, he makes one of his first Impressionist-style landscapes—View of an Old City .

1907: Establishes a collection of Japanese paintings, furniture, and porcelain (this ties into his trend towards Impressionism as many Impressionist artist borrowed heavily from Japanese imagery).  A single painting from this time is known-- Morning sun. Though Oppler likely creates other works, they remain unknown.

1908: Goes to Katwijk, Holland to paint. Oppler shows at exhibitions in Dresden, Bremen, and Munich, and Hanover.

1909: Numerous paintings of Berlin markets suggest that Oppler leaves the studio frequently for plein-air painting, focusing on landscapes. He travels to Copenhagen and N. Germany. In the summer, he returns to Belgium and paints beach scenes in Westend.

1910: Attends Metropolitan Theater in January, creates several paintings from this--Metropolitan Theater Balls (I & II). During the summer, he goes to Dieppe, France and paints numerous beach landscapes.  In autumn, he returns to Berlin and participates in exhibitions.

1911: Not many works are known from this time. He shows in at least 2 exhibitions. Art critic Max Osborn (of the 'Voss Newspaper') writes the first major article on Oppler titled, “A Painter of the North Sea Baths”. This article also identifies him as an upcoming Impressionist artist.

1912: First known drawings of ballet. (Ballet Russes de Serge Diaghilev) Likely Oppler paints ballet scenes prior to this, starting around 1908, but the only surviving images are from this time. In February, his mother dies. In the summer, he heads to England and spends a few months drawing the ballerina Anna Pavlova. Also spends time making oil paintings and etchings of beaches in Belgium and Holland. Returns to Berlin in the fall.

1913: Works on a portfolio of Russian ballet. Uses Pavlova performances in Berlin as reference for more sketches and drawings. Creates numerous portrait etchings, including many portraits of actress Sybil Smolowa.  Within the art world, there is more contention between newer art movements and the traditional schools.

1914: Meets Nadja, a model who is featured prominently in his future paintings and etchings. Makes trips to Berlin for landscapes, attending theaters and concerts for more sketches. World War I begins and Oppler either is drafted or volunteers to be a soldier. While traveling with the army, he makes drawings and prints of towns like Lille in France and in the Carpathians.

1915: Goes back to Berlin with numerous sketches from the war. He has also begun to focus on the depiction of the Jewish populations of places he had travelled. Starts a series on the role of women in the war.

1916: Creates several portraits, including a self-portrait . At the end of the year, he returns to the military but this time as administration, likely as an interpreter and translator. Travels to Belgium at the end of the year and does some architectural drawings as well as more portraits.

1917: 50 years old. Except in a small note in an art chronicle and a small article by Küpper in the periodical “Die Dame”, the birthday is hardly noticed. Makes more landscapes and portraits around Berlin.

1918: Alexander (his brother) buys a house in Niendort on the Baltic Sea and Oppler spends time there in the summer, painting landscapes and making etchings. He also makes a move toward printmaking as well as continuing his etchings of the Ballets Russes.

1919: The beginning of the Weimar Republic, the federal republic and parliamentary representative democracy established in 1919 to replace the imperial form of government used in Germany prior to World War I. The Impressionists (mostly members of the Secession group) are not able to fully reconcile with the upcoming Expressionist and avant-garde artistic movements. Works frequently in prints with landscapes, portraits, and ballet scenes. Spends summers in Niendorf.

1920: Cultural revival in Germany allows for Berlin to once again become a hub for the arts (this allows Oppler to meet many artists and writers in his home).  He creates paintings and etchings of ballets, sporting events, and portraits. Participates in exhibitions in Hannover, Dresden, Chemnitz, and Düsseldorf.

1921: Travels to Italy (Venice, Tuscany, Florence) and paints architecture and makes etchings that reference Whistler’s time in Venice during 1879. In the Vatican, he makes a portrait of Pope Benedict XV. Also visits Sicily and Palermo for more landscapes and building etchings. Receives title of “professor” likely by the Academy of the Arts. Exhibitions in Amsterdam, Hannover, Hamburg, Dresden, Zürich, and Chemnitz, Frankfurt.

1922: Creates illustrations for Friedrich Schiller’s “The Ghost-Seer” (full title: Der Geisterseher - Aus den Papieren der Markgräfin von O** - literally, The Ghost-Seer - From the papers of the Count of O**). Works on a large publication on the Russian Ballet, “Ernst Oppler, 36 etchings of the Russian Ballet.” Also begins depicting the Swedish Ballet. Is still painting in Niendorf during the summer.

1923: Works on dry-point etchings--illustrations for E.T.A. Hoffmann’s short stories and for “Cyrano de Bergerac” by Edmond Rostand. He is honored in an article on 'Velhagen & Klasing Monatshefte.’

1924: Illustrates Oscar Wilde’s The Florentine Tragedy though no images remain. He returns to Italy and then heads to Spain, making etchings of Spanish dancers.  He likely also travels to Morocco, but there are no sketches from this country. (This might signal the end of “oriental” influence on Oppler’s art.)

1925: Fritz Gurlitt gallery in Berlin puts on an Oppler exhibition, including the paintings, drawings, watercolors and prints of the ballet. This exhibition is the last major presentation of his work during his lifetime. He starts to try out pastels, first with a self-portrait and then borrowing from Degas and creating pastel ballet drawings. Pavlova comes to Berlin for a guest performance and Oppler makes sketches of her. He also draws horses in the Spanish Riding School.

1926: The plates of etchings Oppler made of the Russian Ballet are reissued. He continues to draw Pavlova during her stays in Berlin. Other images he makes are portraits of government figures, musicians, and his model Nadja.

1927: 60th birthday and the most recognition he receives is a small note in the periodical “The Art Wanderer.” (Meaning no anniversary exhibition.) The last work from this year is the etching “La Argentina: bolero noble.”

1928: Attends opera performances and paints Richard Strauss, the German composer. Paints some landscapes that reflect the style of French Impressionists. He took part in a number of Secession exhibitions around Berlin. Later in the year, he paints and sketches only portraits and nudes and begins to progress to a more vibrant and loose style.

1929: Dies from heart disease on March 1st.  There is a show of his works in Warsaw, Hanover, and Berlin, and then in a Berlin Secession-run memorial exhibition. The Munich graphic collection at the New Pinakothek also holds a memorial exhibition of Oppler's work. After these two large exhibitions, Oppler is forgotten as an artist for many years.

Ernst Oppler

Ernst Oppler
Black and white photograph, 1912

Gift of Susan Oppler Wood