When Hitler Tried (and Failed) to Be an Artist
Long before he rose to be a ruthless dictator, the Nazi leader was a struggling young artist.
In early 1908, following the death of his mother, 18-year-old Adolf Hitler left his provincial hometown of Linz and proceeded to Vienna, the glamorous capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Leaving behind his late father’s ambitions for him to become a civil servant, Hitler saw Vienna as the perfect place to pursue his own young dream–to become an artist.
But while Hitler’s childhood friend and new roommate, August Kubizek, was instantly accepted to a conservatory to study music, Hitler spent his first months in Vienna sleeping late, sketching and reading piles of books.
Academy Judged Hitler’s Drawings ‘Unsatisfactory’
As biographer Volker Ullrich writes in Hitler: Ascent, 1889-1939, what Kubizek did not understand was that before going to Vienna, Hitler had already been rejected by the city’s Academy of Fine Arts. Although he had passed the first exam in 1907, his drawing abilities were”unsatisfactory,” the admissions committee chose.
Years later, in his autobiographical manifesto Mein Kampf, Hitler claimed that the rejection struck him”as a bolt from the blue,” because he had been convinced of his achievement. In the autumn of 1908, he applied to the Academy of Fine Arts, and they rejected him. Over much of the following year, he would go from a cheap rented room to another, even living in a homeless shelter for a moment.
Then in 1909, Hitler finally started earning money by making small oil and watercolor paintings, mostly pictures of buildings and other landmarks in Vienna that he copied from postcards. By selling these paintings to tourists and frame-sellers, he made a decision to move from the homeless shelter and into a men’s house, where he painted by afternoon and continued studying his books at night.
In Vienna, the frustrated young artist had become interested in politics. Though Hitler maintained in Mein Kampf his anti-semitic views formed in this period, many historians doubt that this simplified narrative . In the end, Samuel Morgenstern, a Jewish store owner, was among the most loyal buyers of Hitler’s paintings in Vienna. But his time in Vienna did contour Hitler’s world view, especially his admiration of the town’s then-mayor, Karl Lueger, who was famous for his antisemitic rhetoric up to his oratorical skills.
Hitler Moves to Munich
Adolf Hitler (far left) pictured with comrades of the 16th Bavarian Reserve Regiment in France, 1916.
Hitler continued his art after moving to Munich in May 1913, selling similar scenes of the town’s landmarks in shops and beer gardens. Though he finally found several loyal, well-off clients who commissioned works from him, his progress came to a grinding halt in January 1914, when the Munich police tracked him down because of his failure to register for the military draft back in Linz.
As Ullrich recorded, Hitler failed his army fitness exam and was announced by the examiners”unsuitable for combat and support responsibility, too weak, incapable of firing weapons.” But he’d enlist voluntarily that August, following the outbreak of World War I, finish his stint as a struggling young artist.
In the decades that followed, Hitler’s formative years in Vienna and his frustrated art career became part of this myth-making–by Hitler himself and from his followers–which helped drive his massive increase to power in Germany. As Führer, Hitler railed against contemporary art, calling it the”degenerate” product of Jews and Bolsheviks and a threat to the German national identity.
In 1937, the Nazis rounded up some 16,000 works of this sort from German museums and put hundreds of these on display in Munich. The exhibition, intended to heap scorn on the artists, was attended by some 2 million people.
In terms of Hitler’s own artwork, he had his paintings gathered and destroyed when he was in power. But several hundred are known to live, including four watercolors confiscated from the U.S. military during World War II.
Though it’s legal in Germany to sell paintings by Hitler as long as they don’t include Nazi symbols, works attributed to him reliably create controversy when they come up for sale. In 2015, 14 paintings and drawings by Hitler brought some $450,000 in an auction in Nuremberg. The auction house defended the sale by asserting that the paintings had historic importance.
In January 2019, German authorities raided Berlin’s Kloss auction house and captured three watercolors said to be painted by Hitler while he lived in Munich. Though starting prices for the paintings were put at $4,000 ($4,500), authorities suspected they were forgeries.
Less than a month later, also in Nuremberg, five paintings attributed to Hitler failed to market as a result of similar fraud concerns. Stephan Klingen of the Central Institute for Art History in Munich, advised the Guardian in the time that validity is especially hard to verify in the case of Hitler’s supposed functions. This is because Hitler’s style was that of a”fairly ambitious amateur,” Klingen said, making his painting impossible to differentiate from”hundreds of thousands” of similar functions from the exact same period of time.