North Sea Landscape I (Thunderstorm), 1937

North Sea Landscape I (Thunderstorm), 1937
Oil on canvas
56.5 x 71.5 cm
Signed Beckmann and dated B. 37 (lower right)
Stephan Lackner, Santa Barbara, California (acquired from the artist), thence by descent Private Collection, Canada
Clara Schulze-Hoffmann, Christian Lenz & Beatrice von Bormann, Max Beckmann, Exile in Amsterdam, Munich, no. 29, illustrated in color p. 72 Benno Reifenberg, Max Beckmann, Munich, 1949, no. 382 Stephan Lackner, Max Beckmann, 1844-1950, Berlin, 1962, illustrated in color pl. 4 Stephan Lackner, Max Beckmann, 1844-1950, Bastei, 1968, illustrated in color pp. 5 & 8 Erhard & Barbara Göpel, Max Beckmann, Katalog der Gemälde, Bern, 1976, vol. 1, no. 464, catalogued p. 301, vol. 2, illustrated pl. 161 Stephan Lackner, Max Beckmann, New York, 1977, no. 29, illustrated in color p. 129 Stephan Lackner, Beckmann, London, 1991, no. 26 illustrated in color p. 97 Stephan Lackner, Max Beckmann, Cologne, 1991, no. 25, illustrated in color p. 97 Clara Schulze-Hoffmann, Max Beckmann, Munich 1991, illustrated in colour, pl.44 Hans Belting, Biography and Landscape, Hatje Cantz, Basel 2011, in: Max Beckmann- the Landscapes, Kunstmuseum Basel exh. cat., p.15-21, ill.
Santa Barbara Museum of Art; San Francisco, Museum of Art & Pasadena, Art Institute, Max Beckmann, 1955, no. 21 Bremen, Kunsthalle; Berlin, Akademie der Künste; Karlsruhe, Badischer Kunstverein; Lucerne, Kunstmuseum; Linz, Neue Galerie der Stadt Linz Wolfgang Gurlitt-Museum & Vienna, Wiener Secession, Max Beckmann Gemälde und Aquarelle der Sammlung Stephan Lackner, 1966-67, no. 20, illustrated in the catalogue Munich, Haus der Kunst; Berlin, Nationalgalerie; The Saint Louis Art Museum & Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Max Beckmann Retrospective, 1984-85, no. 76, illustrated in color in the catalogue

 “And then to the sea. My old romance, it`s been too long since I was with you. You swirling infinity with your embroidred dress.  Oh, how my heart would swell… If I were a king of the world I would choose as my highest privilege to spend one month a year alone on the beach.” 

Max Beckmann

Although better known as a figural painter, landscapes and especially views of the sea play a significant role in Max Beckmann`s oeuvre.  Beckmann loved the ocean, its light, and wide skies, and throughout his artistic career spent many summers by the seashore in Germany, The Netherlands, France, Italy and later in the United States. One of Beckmann’s preferred destinations was the East Frisian island of Wangerooge in the North Sea, known for its vast sandy beaches and rough weather. On his first visit to the island in 1909, Beckmann still paints the sea in an Impressionist manner, influenced by Monet and Cézanne. 

Max Beckmann, “Am Strand von Wangerooge”, c. 1909, Inv.-Nr. LMO 15.767;
Photo: Landesmuseum Oldenburg für Kunst und Kulturgeschichte

On another visit to the island in 1916, he writes to his first wife Minna Beckmann–Tube: 

“A foaming ocean with sails gliding by at lightning speed. The roaring of the waves sound like an earth quake… Sometimes one doesn`t hear the noise of the sea. Probably when the wind dies down. Then it`s totally quiet. So quiet you want to cry. I gently stroke with my hand over the sand. Then I lay there still. Nothing moves. Above me, slowly and silently, hovers a gull.” 

In June 1937, shortly before being forced into emigration, Beckmann returns to Wangerooge one last time. In a letter to his second wife Mathilde (‘Quappi’), he notes:  “Naturally the sea made a great impression on me again and I am decidedly more relaxed and full of new plans and many paintings“. Among these “many paintings” was a seascape that undoubtedly counts among Beckmann`s most powerful:  North Sea Landscape I (Storm).


Max Beckmann’s list of paintings, book II, in: Max Beckmann, The Landscapes, Kunstmuseum  Basel 2011, p. 130, ill. 45

As marked in the artist’s notebook [as Nordseelandschaft I (Gewitter)], the work was painted in Berlin, only days before he left Germany forever. That year, Max Beckmann’s art was branded ‘degenerate’ by the Nazi Regime, his works removed from German public collections and ridiculed in the exhibition “Degenerate Art” that toured public art galleries in Germany and Austria.

North Sea Landscape I was created at a tragic moment in Max Beckmann’s life. It marks the end to his life in his home country.  On July 17, 1937, Amsterdam would become the artist’s new home for a decade, before he and his wife “Quappi” finally settled in the United States in 1947. 

Typical for Beckmann’s work practice, North Sea Landscape I is painted from memory. It is closely related to two other of his seascapes, North Sea Landscape II (Passing Clouds) and Stormy North Sea (Wangerooge). Although not intended as a triptych, these three paintings are of the same format, and in a dramatic manner, depict three phases of the same storm. 

Stormy North sea.JPG
Stormy North Sea (Wangerooge), 1937 ( G 466) , private collection 

North sea landscpae II.JPG
North Sea Landscape II (Passing Clouds), 1937 (G 465), private collection

North Sea Landscape I (Thunderstorm) shows the storm approaching with a threatening wall of dark blue clouds. The storm system is moving in from the right, pushing itself in front of a much lighter, friendlier sky of white, rounded cumulus clouds. The system empties itself over the sea, a cloudburst forming dramatic rays against the sunlight, which the artists depicts in glowing stripes of yellow and blue, contrasting the blackish green ocean. A single black breakwater projects into the ferocious sea from the left, offering little resistance against the powerful white surf crashing on the beach.

Reflecting the force of the storm, Beckmann’s brushwork in this painting is impulsive, the paint applied with speed and vehemence. The white cumulus clouds consist of bright white colour, audaciously pressed onto the canvas with a spatula.  Hans Belting called this painting technique typical for his later phase, Beckmann’s “bravura style”.

The second painting in this triad, Stormy North Sea (Wangerooge), looks out to sea from a different angle. The vantage point is much higher, the sea further away.  Dark grey clouds are looming on the horizon, but the sky is less dramatic than in the first work. The same black breakwater juts out into the sea vertically, directly in front of the viewer. According to the artist’s notebook, Stormy North Sea (Wangerroge) was painted in Amsterdam, shortly after Beckmann’s emigration.

In the third painting of this group, North Sea Landscape II (Passing Clouds), the storm system has finally cleared and the sea has calmed down. The viewer now looks along the beach in the opposite direction, with the breakwater protruding into the sea from the right. 

In these three paintings, Beckmann depicts three phases of a storm – the approaching, lingering and receding clouds – as three acts of a cosmic spectacle. The beach remains empty of people in all three pictures. Unlike in many of Beckmann’s earlier seascapes, where the beaches are often filled with bathers, in this triad he solely concentrates on drama of the natural forces: the weather and the sea.  Beckmann appreciated the remoteness of the coast, where, in true tradition of German Romanticism, he sought divinity in the infinity of the horizon: 

“An ocean… always present in my thoughts. Then shapes become beings and seem comprehensible to me in the great void and uncertainty of the space that I call god.”

Given the moment in Beckmann’s life these three paintings were created in, their political symbolism can hardly be overlooked. The looming storm undoubtedly represents Beckmann’s existential fears with regards to the political developments in Germany, threats to his personal independence, and the looming war. As Stephan Lackner, Beckmann’s old friend and supporter, who owned North Sea landscape I for many years, formulated in 1977: ”This work, in addition to providing a fascinating view of natural phenomena, is a glimpse into the painter’s soul. It shows us Beckmann’s boundless love of freedom.”

Beckmann himself put it this way: “My aim is always to get hold of the magic of reality and to transfer this reality into painting – to make the invisible visible through reality. It may sound paradoxical, but it is, in fact, reality which forms the mystery of our existence.