Lot 1
  • 1

Hermann Max Pechstein

600,000 - 900,000 GBP
1,924,500 GBP
bidding is closed


  • Hermann Max Pechstein
  • signed HMPechstein (upper left)

  • oil on canvas


Dr. Karl Lilienfeld, Berlin & New York (acquired from the artist before 1935)
Van Diemen-Lilienfeld Galleries, New York (by 1938)
Private Collection, Illinois (by 1969)
Marlborough Fine Art, London (acquired from the above on 1st December 1971)
Spencer A. Samuels & Company, New York (acquired from the above on 7th December 1971)
Fischer Fine Art Ltd., London
Acquired from the above by the late owner in January 1979


Cambridge, Massachusetts, Germanic Museum, Harvard University, 1935
San Francisco, San Francisco Museum of Art, German Contemporaries from the Lilienfeld Collection, 1937
San Francisco, San Francisco Museum of Art, Contemporary German Painting, 1937
New York, Van Diemen-Lilienfeld Galleries, Max Pechstein, 1938, no. 2 (as dating from 1924 and titled Circus)
New Orleans, New Orleans Museum of Art, German & Austrian Expressionism, 1975-76, no. 85, illustrated in colour on the cover and in the catalogue (as dating from circa 1910)
London, Fischer Fine Art Ltd., Apocalypse and Utopia. A view of Art in Germany 1910-1939, 1977, no. 88

Catalogue Note

Property from the Marjorie Webster Williams Collection

Marjorie Webster Williams was the granddaughter of a German mining engineer who came to California during the 1849 Gold Rush. Growing up with artists, journalists and other supporters of the arts, Marjorie began drawing with pen and ink by the age of eight and continued creating art throughout her life.

Assembled during the 1970s & 1980s, this important collection comprises works by major figures of the German and Austrian avant-garde, such as Emil Nolde, Gustav Klimt, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, George Grosz, Hermann Max Pechstein. Sotheby's is honoured to present works from the Marjorie Webster Williams Collection in its series of Impressionist and Modern Art auctions on 5th & 6th February 2008.

Painted circa 1920, Zirkus mit Dromedaren is a monumental example of Pechstein's response to the energy and flamboyance of the Berlin of the 1920s. The dynamism and diversity of the cosmopolitan city, as well as the enduring influence of the artist's involvement with the Brücke group, are reflected in the dramatic composition and bold colours of the present work. The Brücke artists, including Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff and Erich Heckel were continually exploring the theme of circus, cabaret and other evening entertainments provided by the bustling town. Berlin, in the first decade of the twentieth century was the fastest growing city in the world. A paradoxical new temple of modernity and of the vast industrial progress it brought with it, Germany's Weltstadt (metropolis) was the epitome of all that was modern. At night, it was the brightest city in Europe, lit up by all the latest attractions.

Pechstein was the first of the Brücke artists to make the important move from provincial Dresden to the teeming metropolis of Berlin in 1908, where his art gradually witnessed an explosion of colour and increased focus on such themes as the varieté and the circus. The circus and the cabaret were milieus where high-life met high-jinx, where the bourgeoisie came to watch the working class perform - and were watched in turn. This social frisson is evident in the present painting, which evokes extravagance and decadence of the Weimar Republic years.

Stylistically Zirkus mit Dromedaren corresponds closely to Expressionist ideas aiming towards a distortion of form and perspective and a stridency of colour and vision.  Indeed the animals' bold and simplified forms and distinctive black outlines brilliantly exemplify the artist's continuous experimentation with the painterly language of Expressionism. The powerful composition of the present oil with its picture plane tilted up towards the viewer allowing us to become spectators of the circus performance - echoes the boldness and assurance of vision that Pechstein possessed at this time; the viewer is further drawn into the picture by the skilfully chosen view of the scene whereby we, as spectators, become part of the audience. As the title Zirkus mit Dromedaren suggests, the painting focuses on the spectacle and its performers whereby the two dominant dromedaries steal the show. The zebras cantering around the arena add to the overall dynamic motion of the picture whilst the ring master's controlling gesture with his right arm raised signifies the dramatic tension of the scene.  The protagonists seem to be caught in the momentum, as if timelessly bound to their act emphasising the artist's admiration of the spectacle.

The art critic Paul Fechter commented on Pechstein's remarkable stylistic development in the 1920s: 'The strong impact evident in Pechstein's works of that period is probably due to his acquired balance between experiences and his own creation. In his earlier work either one or the other is dominant whereas in the 1920s Pechstein found the perfect harmony. The artist abandons the stylisation of forms and creates compositions in which the elements of colour, shape and form merge into one organic whole' (quoted in Max Pechstein im Brücke-Museum (exhibition catalogue), 2001-02, p. 44, translated from German).
Pechstein's predilection for the subject and the 'bohemian' tradition of the depiction of such topics had its roots in the art of Degas, Seurat and Toulouse-Lautrec in the late nineteenth century and, more recently, in the work of Kees van Dongen in Paris.  As an expression of la vie moderne and as an antithesis to bourgeois life, the circus provided an endless source of colourful inspiration. In Berlin, the Brücke artists visited all kinds of varieté shows ranging from can-can dancers and circus acts to boxing matches and jugglers. Postcards exchanged between the artists reveal a fascinating insight into the world of evening entertainments at the beginning of the twentieth century in Germany. Through the treatment of the circus in Zirkus mit Dromedaren, Pechstein was able to achieve at once a dazzling flash of colour and a penetrating insight into the world of this 1920s metropolis.