Paul D. Wilke
Was Hitler a Good Artist?
Hitler's Art: Good, Bad, or Ugly?
Before the First World War rescued Hitler's purposeless life, he was an unknown artist struggling to make a living selling his paintings. We often hear of him described as a "failed artist," which I guess is true as far as it goes. He never made much money at it and was never going to. However, that doesn't really tell the whole story.
When I started researching this project, I expected his youthful paintings would be the amateurish doodlings of a budding little tyrant. Something easy to mock. That didn't turn out to be the case. Considering he was a high school dropout with no formal art training, it's hard to look at his pre-1914 art and dismiss it as nothing more than low-quality trash. It actually wasn't that bad. Don't get me wrong: I'm not saying he deserves a wall in the Musée d'Orsay. He doesn't. But his paintings were better than expected.
That made me curious about the backstory of Hitler's early years as an artist. I found that there was no way he would have done any more than scrape by as a painter, world war or not. No, it wasn't even close. Unfortunately for Hitler's grand artistic dreams, two personal flaws doomed him: laziness and a taste in art about half a century out of date.
But that's not the whole story. One finds two versions of Hitler the artist: the fin-de-siècle drifter who painted technically competent though uninspired copies of others' works. Then there was the very different post-WWI artist who designed the Nazi party's most enduring symbols.
But first, a look at Hitler's early life, his ambitions, and what kept him from realizing them.
Hitler's Childhood: An Aspiring Artist's Journey
“Artist, no, never as long as I live!” Alois Hitler to his son Adolf
Even when he lacked everything else, Hitler remained convinced through it all that his destiny was to become a great artist. As a child, he had shown some interest and talent at drawing, though not much else when it came to school. In 1924, Hitler's former grade school teacher, Edward Huemer, described him as “definitely talented” but “not diligent” (Ullrich 20). "Not diligent" will be a recurring theme in this story.
By Hitler's version in Mein Kampf, his tyrannical father, Alois Hitler, had a more conventional career path in mind for him, something more practical, like becoming a respectable civil servant in the Habsburg bureaucracy, just as he had been. But little Adolf wasn't having it. While he respected his father's professional achievements, raising himself as he did from humble beginnings to bourgeois respectability, Hitler wanted something more for himself.
Years later, he wrote in Mein Kampf: "I yawned and grew sick to my stomach at the thought of sitting in an office, deprived of my liberty; ceasing to be master of my own time and being compelled to force the content of a whole life into blanks that had to be filled out" (Hitler 11).
So Hitler did poorly in school, supposedly just to spite his father, but more likely out of sheer laziness. He did well enough when something interested him, like History or Geography, but ignored everything else that didn't. By his own admission, "What gave me pleasure I learned, especially everything which, in my opinion, I should later need as a painter. What seemed to me unimportant in this respect or was otherwise unattractive to me, I sabotaged completely" (Hitler 14).
This father-son battle of wills lasted until 1902 when Alois suddenly died. Hitler's mother sent Adolf to another school several hours from home for the 1903-1904 school years, where he once again underperformed academically. This continued until the fall of 1905 when Hitler feigned illness so that he could return home.
And that was that. Hitler's formal education was over at the age of 16.
The high school dropout did little more than read, draw, attend the opera, and sponge off his widowed and increasingly ill mother for the next two years. Or, as Ian Kershaw describes Hitler during this period (1905-1907), "Adolf lived a life of parasitic idleness – funded, provided for, looked after, and cosseted by a doting mother" (Kershaw 86).
This "parasitic idleness" continued until September 1907, when Hitler finally roused himself to travel to Vienna for the entrance exam at the prestigious Academy of Fine Arts.
Hitler as Artist: A Short History (1907-1914)
Hitler arrived in Vienna thinking that getting into the Academy of Fine Arts would be easy.
“I had gone to Vienna to take the entrance examination for the Academy. I had set out with a pile of drawings, convinced that it would be child's play to pass the examination” (Hitler 28).
He was in for a rude awakening.
In early September 1907, a now 18-year-old Hitler took the entrance examination. There were 112 candidates that year. The admissions committee started by looking at samples of the candidates' portfolios, and Hitler's "pile of drawings" no doubt represented what he considered to be his best works.
The supremely confident young man was probably not surprised when he made it to the second round with 78 others. The next stage involved two three-hour examinations where the candidates produced drawings on specific themes (Kershaw 91). Now working under a time constraint and on themes not of his choosing that put him outside his comfort zone, Hitler floundered and advanced no further. "Too few heads. Sample drawing unsatisfactory" was the damning verdict from the admissions committee (Ullrich 27).
When Hitler asked the Rector for additional feedback, he was told that his true talent was in architecture. He should pursue that instead. The problem, as Hitler knew, was that he had dropped out of high school, and that was the minimum requirement to be eligible to study architecture at the university. This made his backup plan of advanced studies in architecture all but impossible. Hitler thus found himself locked out of higher education on two fronts. He didn't have the talent to get into the Art Academy, yet couldn't pursue training in architecture without the proper credentials.
He was devastated by this rejection and told no one about his failure to get in. He quietly returned to his home in Linz to be with his now terminally ill mother, who died a few months later in December. Soon after the funeral, Hitler moved permanently to Vienna and reapplied to retake the entrance exam in 1908. This time he wasn't even given a chance to test. This ended his last and best chance of getting into the Academy of Fine Arts. He kept alive the hope of one day studying architecture but did nothing to make that dream a reality.
Instead, Hitler spent the next five years earning a modest living selling his paintings in the beerhalls of Vienna. While at a homeless shelter (1909-1910), Hitler became friends with fellow vagrant Reinhold Hanisch. Hitler's brag that he had studied at the Academy of Fine Arts (a bald lie) gave Hanisch the idea of teaming up with the starving artist
to make some money. An arrangement was made: Hitler painted postcards, and Hanisch sold them. They split the profits. The two actually earned enough to leave the homeless shelter and move into a more comfortable men's home on the outskirts of Vienna, where Hitler would remain for the next three years (Ullrich 39).
We see a hint here concerning the technical quality of Hitler's paintings. They sold as fast as he could paint them, providing a modest income for several years sufficient to support him and his business partner. Hitler painted mostly historical Viennese landmarks like the Karlskirche, the Stephansdom, and the town hall, which Hanisch then sold to tourists and frame sellers for a modest profit (Ullrich 39).
Still, a less flattering clue emerges that tells us a little about his originality and work ethic as an artist. People were indeed willing to buy his art, but it was far from original. Reinforcing the verdict of the Academy's entrance exam, Hitler didn't excel when he had to paint under a time constraint and on themes outside of his narrow area of interest.
According to Kershaw, “Hitler invariably copied his pictures from others, sometimes following visits to museums or galleries to find suitable subjects. He was lazy and had to be chivvied by Hanisch, who could offload the pictures faster than Hitler painted them” (Kershaw 132).
Cooperation between Hanisch and Hitler eventually broke down when the two quarreled. To make the venture even modestly profitable, Hitler needed to paint at least one postcard per day. Hanisch had proven that he could sell Hitler's art for about 5 Kronen a piece, split 50/50, but he needed a consistent supply to do so (Kershaw 132). He couldn't earn the two money if he didn't have any art to sell. But Hitler couldn't keep the one-a-day pace. Remember, he was otherwise unemployed and had his days open to painting, if he had the motivation to do so.
Instead, he preferred to fritter away his days doing anything but painting. When pressed by Hanisch on the need to produce art for him to sell, Hitler retorted that he needed to be in the proper mood for artistic creation (Ullrich 41). Mutually frustrated with each other, the two men went their separate ways after an acrimonious dispute. From that point on, Hitler handled the sale of his own art. Among his clients during this period were two Jewish businessmen, Jakob Altenberg and Samuel Morgenstern, Viennese art dealers willing to pay Hitler a decent fee for his work (Ullrich 42).
Nevertheless, Hitler grew tired of Vienna and moved to Munich in May 1913, where he again set up shop as a painter and dealer of his own work. In Munich, he usually finished a painting every two or three days, watercolors mostly, and usually of the city's famous sites like the Theatinerkirche, the Asamkirche, the Hofbräuhaus, the Alter Hof, the Münzhof, the Hofbräuhaus, the Feldherrnhalle, the Frauenkirchethe Altes Rathaus, the Sendlinger Tor, the and the Residenz (Ullrich 46-47).
Later as Chancellor, Hitler admitted that the quality of these watercolors was average, at best. But still, as Kershaw rightly notes, they were no worse than similar paintings by art students peddled around Munich's cafes, beer halls, and tourist areas. Again, Hitler showed that he could produce decent pictures that were good enough to earn him a modest living wage (Kershaw 166).
So, my verdict on Hitler as a painter?
Surprisingly he was better and more successful than expected, though with a relatively modest ceiling to go any further.
This is the time when one may be tempted to ask, "what if?".
What if Hitler had gotten accepted into the Academy and actually received some formal instruction?
Would history's most reviled pariah have become a respectable artist instead of a peddler of kitschy postcards?
Discussing Hitler's Limitations as an Artist
Hitler was probably never going to make it as a respected artist. There are two major reasons to be skeptical of this "what if?," as if all young Hitler needed was a lucky break to make it big in the Viennese art scene. There was more than bad luck working against him.
Hitler's Inconsistent Work Ethic
First, while Hitler had some raw talent, he did little to cultivate it. He put in just enough work to make ends meet, and no more. He refused steady work, instead preferring to sleep in before spending his days reading or pontificating about politics to anyone who would listen. Anything but work. He still clung to his ambition of studying architecture at some point but did nothing to further that dream.
Before World War I, Hitler fluctuated between grandiose plans for the future and lazily lounging about. The two were irreconcilable. Kershaw writes of Hitler during this period, "Systematic preparation and hard work were as foreign to the young Hitler as they would be to the later dictator" (Kershaw 106).
An anecdote can help illustrate the point. Hitler's friend and roommate (~1908), music student August Kubizek, later described a young man who alternated between bouts of frantic activity and lethargy.
Kubizek recalls how Hitler once got it into his mind to write an opera called "Wieland the Blacksmith,' never mind that he couldn't compose music at all. No matter.
"Kubizek was forced to assist him in this adventurous project, until one day after several sleepless nights in which Hitler had worked himself into a frenzy, he gave up on the idea. The same thing happened with other projects. When an idea took hold of him, Hitler would immediately set to work in a blaze of activity only to suddenly lose interest and devote his attention to something else" (Ullrich 33).
Now contrast this with a genuinely great artist, Vincent Van Gogh. He was also perceived by family and friends as a lazy idler, though he was anything but. Like Hitler, Van Gogh had no formal training but had dreams of making it commercially as an artist. Van Gogh's family, including his art dealer brother, Theo, thought this idea was as insane as it was impractical. They told him that he should get a real job and settle down.
But the similarity ends there.
Van Gogh lived to paint and did so obsessively for the last ten years of his life, almost as if his sanity depended on it. With minimal emotional support from his family and no training to develop his talents, he still kept at it independently. He never stopped painting, experimenting, and getting better until the day he died by his own hand in 1890.
Van Gogh once wrote, "I put my heart & soul into my work, & have lost my mind in the process." And, "I am seeking, I am striving, I am in it with all my heart." He certainly was, and this shows at the extremes the traits that make someone a great artist, or a great anything, for that matter. Van Gogh was not born an artistic prodigy; he only became a master through trial and error, perseverance, hard work, and complete devotion to his painting.
Or better put, he couldn't.
He simply wasn't built this way.
Moreover, Gustav Klimt, one of Europe's most accomplished artists at the turn of the century, once wrote, "I'm a painter who paints day in day out, from morning till evening - figure pictures and landscapes, more rarely portraits." As anyone who knew Klimt can attest, this was the truth. He climbed to the top of the Viennese art world with a work ethic that in turn fueled his creative talents.
Meanwhile, lacking a steady work ethic of his own, Hitler remained a dreamy dilettante.
In 1939, German author Thomas Mann wrote an essay for Esquire entitled "That Man is My Brother." It captured the most annoying traits of the lazy wannabe artist and how they manifested themselves in Hitler.
"Everything is there: the tendency to be “difficult,” the laziness and pathetic amorphousness of adolescence, the refusal to be accommodated, the what-do-you-really-want, the semi-idiotic vegetation of a social and spiritual bohemian, the arrogant, self-inflated refusal of all reasonable and honorable activity—and on what basis? For the sake of an obscure intimation that one is destined for something indefinable, which would make people burst into laughter if it were ever possible to name."
This gets to the fallacy that Hitler and others of aspiring artistic greatness commit: genius alone is enough to guarantee success.
No, that's not how it works: genius without the effort to make it go is like a Porsche with a lawnmower engine.
Hitler's Taste in Art was Unfashionable
The second reason Hitler wasn't going to rock the art world is his tastes were out of step with the times. Europe's turn-of-the-century art scene celebrated artists who traded photo-realistic painting for experimenting with avant-garde styles. A cultural revolution was taking place, not only in the visual arts but in literature (Dostoyevski), poetry (Baudelaire), the sciences (Darwin), psychology (Freud), and philosophy (Nietzsche). Beginning with Monet and the Impressionists in the 1870s, painting spawned dozens of dynamic artistic movements, each influenced by the others, yet with their own distinct styles.
Hitler hated them all.
He looked around and saw nothing but insults to his beloved classical ideals. This reactionary reaction is itself a classic in the art world. "You call this art!" is something many modern art lovers have heard a thousand times, usually from people who consider anything by Thomas Kinkade or Dogs Playing Poker to be the pinnacle of high art. So Hitler's allergic reaction to modern art was nothing out of the ordinary. But this wasn't an era where artistic traditionalists like him would get any traction, not when his tastes were so out of tune with the rest of the art world.
Hitler particularly admired the German romantics of the early-to-middle nineteenth century. In Munich, he often went to the Alte Pinakothek to gaze on the collection housing the previous century's masters.
He looked to the past for his inspiration, to more traditional artists not yet corrupted by the degeneracy and rot of modernism (Kershaw 46). Some of his favorites were Arnold Böcklin, Anselm Feuerbach, Carl Spitzweg, and Moritz von Schwind. They focused on traditional themes like classical mythology, folk tales, and idyllic depictions of natural landscapes. These were all accomplished artists in their day, but they were no longer in vogue outside of the museums that housed their works.
Perhaps if he had been able to put a new spin on these classics, then he might have carved out a niche for himself. But he never really showed any originality. He was simply a competent copycat in an artistic genre whose best days were long gone and never to return.
It is true that what he did paint, copycat or not, was good enough to earn him a modest living selling to lower-middle-class tourists and beer hall patrons. That said, it was never going to rock the art world. With or without the outbreak of war in 1914, Hitler's painting career had gone about as far as his talent and dedication would allow.
But the war changed everything. In particular, it profoundly changed Hitler, who spent four traumatic years in the trenches on the western front fighting for Germany. When the war ended with Germany's defeat in 1918, Hitler found his life's purpose: the redemption of Germany's honor and revenge on those he held responsible (Jews! Communists! Liberals! and the French!). Fueled by hate and rage, this new purpose gave him the inspiration to create a work of art that would prove far more enduring than anything else he ever did.
"People talk about punishing Hitler. But he cannot be punished. He desired one thing alone, and he has it: to play a part in History. He can be killed, tortured, imprisoned, humiliated, History will always be there to shield his spirit from all the ravages of suffering and death." - French Philosopher Simone Weil (1909-1943)
Great art powerfully communicates an aesthetic; it can inspire, provoke, disturb, or shock. It takes eternal themes and transforms them into something fresh that resonates. The best visual art transcends language by tapping into something atavistic in human nature that leaves us verbally dumbfounded. When art connects, we sense something mysterious about the world and ourselves that evades straightforward explanations. Engaging with great art redefines and enriches the way we perceive the world. It can be beautiful but does not have to be; it can be revolting but does not have to be; it can be awe-inspiring but does not have to be. Good art isn't morally good; in fact, it's amoral. Remember that.
In Mein Kampf, Hitler describes how he designed the flag for the newly-created Nazi party. First, the flag of the old Reich was discarded as a symbol of failure and defeat. No, this would not do, though he liked the basic red-white-black color scheme. Better to leave such a tainted symbol in the past, though. Suggestions poured in from party members on possible flag designs, all of which Hitler rejected as inappropriate or lacking the right about of symbolic gravitas. A primarily black flag would not suffice, Hitler mused, because it didn't grab attention. Too bland. Same with white. Too boring. Blue and white were negatively associated with the German state of Bavaria, which had briefly and disastrously been a Soviet communist republic, so that wouldn't work (Hitler 834-836).
But coming back to some combination of black, red, and white, well, that appealed to Hitler as the most aesthetically pleasing.
“After innumerable trials, I decided upon a final form – a flag of red material with a white disc bearing in its center a black swastika. After many trials I obtained the correct proportions between the dimensions of the flag and of the white central disc, as well as that of the swastika. And this is how it has remained ever since” (Hitler 834-836).
Hitler was delighted with the result, describing the finished design as something akin to a torch. He was right to be proud. The National Socialist Party's popularity took off once it had the correct symbol. They had something that stood out from the other parties.
“The new flag appeared in public in the midsummer of 1920. It suited our movement admirably, both being new and young. Not a soul had seen this flag before; its effect at that time was something akin to that of a blazing torch. We ourselves experienced almost a boyish delight when one of the ladies of the party who had been entrusted with the making of the flag finally handed it over to us. And a few months later those of us in Munich were in possession of six of these flags. The steadily increasing strength of our hall guards was a main factor in popularizing the symbol.
And indeed a symbol it proved to be.
Not only because it incorporated those revered colors expressive of our homage to the glorious past and which once brought so much honor to the German nation, but this symbol was also an eloquent expression of the will behind the movement. We National Socialists regarded our flag as being the embodiment of our party program. The red expressed the social thought underlying the movement. White the national thought. And the swastika signified the mission allotted to us – the struggle for the victory of Aryan mankind and at the same time the triumph of the ideal of creative work which is in itself and always will be anti-Semitic” (Hitler 836-837).
Hitler had finally created a powerfully original work of art and didn't want to limit this big idea to just one flag. The black swastika was a huge hit and became the defining symbol of the Nazis thereafter. Hitler also designed the party badge, its stationary, and the masthead for the party newspaper - all embossed with an eagle carrying a swastika in its talons. He created the standard that was used as the Party insignia for mass rallies (O'Shaughnessy 243).
In Selling Hitler: Propaganda and the Nazi Brand, Nicolas O'Shaughnessy writes that Hitler had an instinctive understanding of symbols and the crucial role they played in promoting the brand of his fledgling party (O'Shaughnessy 243). This was essential because the intellectual content of Nazi ideology was minimal. It was all emotion and struggle and action. The Nazi symbology that Hitler created served as an amplifier to those emotions in a mass rally setting.
Put another way, these symbols delivered Nazi ideology more effectively than the written or spoken word ever could. Reading one of Hitler's speeches today, so utterly divorced from the Nazi-symbol-saturated pageantry of his mass rallies, will leave you wondering how in the hell he charmed a culturally sophisticated nation like Germany into turning their brains off and following him into the abyss.
But that misses the essential artistic role his symbology played in creating the emotional ambiance that so effectively entranced his audiences. Hitler didn't rely on his oratory alone to sway minds. He also developed an iconography that opened crowds to his message of grievance, anger, and vengeance promised. It worked. Hitler had discovered the key to power by using his artistic instincts to further his political ambitions. He immersed his supporters in symbols that primed their as-yet-unarticulated emotions. Doing so then allowed him to give form to those emotions with a speech filled with a few repetitious themes that were easy for people to remember. This was brilliantly effective propaganda, true, but it was also an insidious form of art.
I'll end with another quote from Simone Weil on how we should zoom out and view Hitler in history's larger context. We may not be done with him yet.
"Whatever Hitler is made to suffer, that will not stop him from feeling himself to be a superb figure. Above all, it will not stop, in twenty, fifty, a hundred or two hundred years’ time, some solitary little dreamer, whether German or otherwise, from seeing in Hitler a superb figure, with a superb destiny from beginning to end, and desiring with all his soul to have a similar destiny. In which case, woe betide his contemporaries" (Weil 224).
Was Weil on to something? Consider this sobering thought for a moment: Hitler the malevolent monster who burned books and paintings and people too might eventually become seen as a crucified martyr, symbolically born again to inspire a new generation of jack-booted thugs seeking revenge against the corruption of a morally bankrupt world. Did Hitler the Artist unintentionally achieve a sort of immortality that Hitler the Politician could never have imagined? Do these very different Hitlers eventually spawn Hitler the Prophet?
Hitler's masterpiece was not a thousand-year Reich ruled by a blond aristocracy of racial supermen. No, not at all. That absurd dream died in Berlin in 1945 along with the broken dictator. Hitler's masterpiece was a red flag with a black swastika in the middle. This became a symbol so potent that it escaped the ruins of its creator's bunker tomb to incubate the core tenets of his murder and maggots ideology for future generations. The symbol still resonates with a few today, even all these decades later and knowing the full extent of Hitler's crimes. Perhaps someday in the distant (or not so distant) future, this dormant ideology will surge forth again from the darkness, and bring with it the darkness.
When that happens, then a new era of misanthropes will have their own crooked cross to rally around and their own martyred man-god to worship.
Woe betide indeed!
Hitler, Adolf. Mein Kampf. Apple Books.
Kershaw, Ian. Hitler: A Biography. W.W. Norton and Company, Inc. Apple Books, 2008 edition.
Mann, Thomas. That Man Is My Brother: ESQUIRE: March 1939.” Esquire, classic.esquire.com/article/1939/3/1/that-man-is-my-brother.
O'Shaughnessy, Nicholas. Selling Hitler: Propaganda and the Nazi Brand. C. Hurst & Company Pub LTD, 2021.
Ullrich, Volker. Hitler: Ascent. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition, 2016 translated edition.
Weil, Simone. The Need for Roots (Routledge Classics). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition, 2002.