When An Art Critic Reviewed Hitler’s Paintings, His Analysis Gave A Truly Intriguing Insight

Image: Adolf Hitler

It’s 2002, and a professional critic is casting their eye over a series of historic paintings. Almost 60 years previously, the artist who created them ended his life in a bunker beneath Berlin. But all these decades later, the artistic works of Adolf Hitler have remained a source of great interest. But what does this expert really make of them?

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Today, Hitler is remembered as the architect of the Second World War – the bloodiest conflict that our planet has ever seen. But when he was a young man, he also nurtured a passion for art. In fact, he was once part of a burgeoning community of painters and radical thinkers who inhabited the bohemian city of Vienna, Austria.

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Hitler’s body of work covers a diverse range of material. But today, his pieces are studied more for the infamy of their creator than for any artistic talent that they might display. So what happened when a modern critic was invited to analyze a sample – without knowing who was behind them?

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As the leader of Germany’s National Socialist party, Hitler enjoyed a meteoric rise to power in the years leading up to the Second World War. And with him at the helm, Germany kickstarted a conflict that raged across much of the globe for six years. In fact, by the time that fighting finally ceased, as many as 85 million people had lost their lives.

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There were many complicated factors fanning the flames of the Second World War. But Hitler’s own particularly twisted belief system played a pivotal role. And with his ideas about the innate superiority of Germanic people behind them, the Nazis wreaked death and destruction across Europe on a scale that had never been seen before.

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Moreover, it was Hitler’s anti-semitism that inspired the Holocaust and ultimately resulted in the deaths of an estimated six million Jews. And today, his name is used as a byword for evil around the world. But was the Nazi’s head honcho always destined for a bloody fate? Or might his life once have taken a very different path?

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According to reports, Hitler actually expressed a desire to become an artist from a young age. But his father Alois was disapproving and sent the boy to a technical school in Linz, Austria, instead. Three years later, Alois died – and the future Führer muddled through the rest of his education, graduating in 1905.

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In 1907 Hitler decided to pursue his dreams by relocating to Vienna. At this time, the city was a hotbed of artists and thinkers. There, he applied to become a student at the city’s prestigious Academy of Fine Arts. But even though he initially enjoyed some success with his endeavor, he was ultimately rejected on two separate occasions.

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Apparently the first stage of Hitler’s application was successful, and he completed an assigned task to the satisfaction of the examiners. However, he was rejected after his portfolio was deemed unsuitable. Ultimately, the academy’s instructors decided that the boy’s talents leaned more towards architecture than fine art.

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Although the instructors at the Academy of Fine Arts pointed Hitler towards their School of Architecture, he lacked the academic background needed to apply. And with his dreams in tatters, the young man found himself adrift in the city. In 1909 his mother died and his financial support dried up, forcing him to seek shelter in public dormitories.

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Despite these hardships, however, Hitler never gave up on his art. In fact, he eked out a living painting pictures of Vienna and selling them to the city’s visitors. And over the years, he slowly diversified his work. Ironically, many of the clients who supported the future dictator through these difficult years were apparently members of the Jewish community.

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At the time, however, Vienna was rife with German nationalism and anti-semitism – both ideologies that would come to define the future Führer. In fact, even the city’s mayor was outspoken against the Jewish community. And even though they were some of his customers, Hitler apparently despised the Jews with whom he shared the city.

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During his years in Vienna, Hitler also reportedly developed a love of fine architecture. On top of that, he was enamored with the operas of Wagner, one of the city’s most famous sons. And he also fell in love with graphic design – an interest which some claim later informed the Nazi flag.

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But while many of Hitler’s other interests could be considered highbrow, critics claim that his taste in art remained crude. In fact, he’s thought to have valued painters such as Eduard von Grützner, noted for his depictions of beer-swilling monks. And despite his ambition, his own work is generally considered mediocre by modern critics.

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What Hitler supposedly lacked in talent, however, he apparently made up for in productivity. In fact, he would later write that he had painted as many as three pieces every day while living in Vienna. And according to experts, that could mean that more than 600 artworks were produced during this period.

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To some, even this figure is a conservative estimate. In fact, Peter Jahn – who was tasked with tracking down Hitler’s artwork in the run-up to the Second World War – claims that the Führer once told him he had painted more than 1,000 pieces between 1908 and 1914. And although most were watercolors, there were also some oil paintings amongst the collection.

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In 1914 the First World War broke out and Hitler found himself stationed on the Western Front. And while there, he continued to work on his art, painting the landscapes and scenarios that surrounded him. Eventually, however, the young man found his calling in politics and slowly abandoned his artistic career.

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In 1936 Hitler directed a man named Schulte Stratthaus to track down and purchase as many of his early paintings as he could find. Indeed, this would have been a daunting task given how prolific the young artist once was. For the next four years, associates such as Jahn carried out this challenging mission. Today, it is believed that many of these works were ultimately destroyed.

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However, when the Second World War drew to a close in 1945, the U.S. military discovered a cache of Hitler’s paintings hidden underground. Eventually, they were sent to Washington D.C., where they became part of a larger collection of confiscated Nazi art. And while some of the works were eventually returned to Germany, many remain in the United States today.

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Over the years, many have attempted to analyze Hitler’s paintings, hoping to catch a glimpse of the monster that the artist would eventually become. However, as early as 1936, critics had been dismissive of the Führer’s works. That year, a journalist from the U.S. named John Gunther penned a harsh review of the pieces that Hitler had submitted to the Vienna Academy some 30 years previously.

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“They are prosaic, utterly devoid of rhythm, color, feeling or spiritual imagination,” Gunther wrote in Inside Europe, published in 1940. “They are architect’s sketches: painful and precise draftsmanship; nothing more. No wonder the Vienna professors told him to go on to an architectural school and give up pure art as hopeless.”

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Image: Adolf Hitler

Today, perhaps one of Hitler’s best known paintings is The Courtyard of the Old Residency in Munich. This is a 1914 depiction of the Alter Hof building in the center of the titular German city. Created using watercolors, it’s a piece that combines the future dictator’s love of both architecture and art in one image.

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Image: Adolf Hitler

Later, during his time on the Western Front, Hitler painted more watercolors – this time of buildings in locations across Belgium and France. And today, it’s easy to find images of his pieces widely distributed across the internet. However, there are many artworks that have been erroneously attributed to the Führer over the years.

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Meanwhile, at Fort Belvoir in Fairfax County, Virginia, the United States Army houses four of Hitler’s watercolors. One of these depicts a lone lady located in a Vienna square. Apparently, it’s the only one in this collection which contains a human figure – a rare feature that has been at the heart of much critical analysis of the dictator’s work.

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“Would the woman’s utter lack of detail and the painting’s odd absence of emotion stand out so sharply if we didn’t know what had become of the artist?” wrote the Washington Post journalist Marc Fisher in 2002. “Is it possible to look at these antiseptic street scenes and see the roots of Hitler’s obsession with cleanliness and his belief that his mission in life was to cleanse Germany and the world of the germ of Judaism?”

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Interestingly, it’s an opinion apparently shared by an anonymous critic who was invited to analyze Hitler’s work in 2002. According to Frederic Spotts, who wrote the seminal Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics in 2003, the critic was asked to share his opinions on the pieces. But he wasn’t permitted the knowledge of who had created them.

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In his book, Spotts claimed that the critic lauded Hitler’s work as being “quite good.” However, he also apparently highlighted the way in which the artist depicted people, stating that it displayed a disinterest in the human race. Interestingly, this implies that the future Führer’s paintings really did hold a clue to the horror he would subsequently unleash on the world.

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Image: Adolf Hitler

In Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics, this anonymous critique forms part of a comprehensive analysis of Hitler’s artistic output. “He had a modicum of talent – at least in sketching buildings – but what technique he learned he picked up on his own,” Spotts wrote. “Like most amateurs, he began by painting simple landscapes.”

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Image: German Federal Archives

However, Spotts went on to point out that the Führer’s lack of real talent did little to reduce his ambition. “Hitler’s problem – in a way his tragedy – was that he confused aesthetic drive with aesthetic talent,” he wrote. Moreover, he highlighted the fact that art played a significant role in the story of the Nazi party.

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In fact, some scholars have noted that Nazi events such as the Nuremberg rallies were intensely theatrical in nature – a spectacle fitting of a leader with a passion for the arts. And according to Spotts, these shows were designed to make the party seem more accessible. “Unlike Marxism,” he wrote, “it offered little that was concrete enough to get hold of.”

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“What Hitler provided was ritual in place of belief, or belief as ritual,” Spotts continued. And interestingly, it’s an opinion that’s been echoed by other observers. Writing for the New York Times in 2002, art critic Peter Schjeldahl also highlighted how the Führer drew on his artistic past to drive the success of the Nazi party.

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“It seems clear that Hitler employed artistic means – hypnotic oratory, moving spectacle, elegant design – not just to gain power but to wield it in the here and now,” Schjeldahl wrote. Moreover, he pointed towards the Führer’s artistic ability to adapt to different influences. This, he implied, may have foreshadowed his success as a politician.

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While critics were busy picking apart Hitler’s artwork, however, controversy still raged over the true ownership of many of the pieces that had made their way into American hands. Back in 1983, for instance, a businessperson from Texas named Billy Price took the U.S. government to court. This was ultimately an attempt to get his hands on four watercolor paintings confiscated after the Second World War.

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Apparently, the paintings had been given to the Nazi photographer Heinrich Hoffman by Hitler himself. Years later, the man’s descendants sold the pieces to Price. But there was a problem – they were still located in Fort Belvoir, in the custody of the U.S. Army. And as the businessman fought for his purchase in court, the cultural and political significance of the artwork was called into question.

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Image: Adolf Hitler

In a statement for the court, Sybil Milton, a historian specializing in Nazi Germany, elaborated on the pieces’ supposed unimportance. “The only reason that the four Hitler watercolors have any value at all is because of the notoriety of the painter,” she wrote. “An excellent case can be made that these drawings ‘might revitalize the Nazi spirit of German militarism.’”

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In fact, Milton argued that returning the watercolors would be a breach of the Potsdam Agreement. This was the Allied arrangement that laid out the future of Germany after the Second World War. “Since they make Hitler look harmless and therefore could be used to disguise the horror and murderous brutality of Nazi Germany through Hitler’s seemingly innocuous amateur art,” she explained.

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Initially, the District Court for the Southern District of Texas ruled in favor of Price, awarding him compensation of nearly $8 million. However, in 1995 the Court of Appeals overruled this decision, declaring the U.S. government immune from such accusations. Today, the watercolors remain at Fort Belvoir, where they are seen only by the occasional visiting scholar.

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Meanwhile, many of the artworks collected by Jahn during the Second World War have made their way to market. Here, they are expected to fetch somewhere in the region of $50,000 per piece. And in 2014 an authenticated watercolor by Hitler sold at auction for $148,000. Five years later, three more artworks went on sale in Berlin.

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From the start, the auction house responsible for the most recent sale had little faith in Hitler’s work. “If you walk down the Seine and see 100 artists, 80 will be better than this,” a spokesperson admitted to Reuters in 2019. Eventually, the paintings went unsold amidst accusations that they had been forged.

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To this day, the artwork of Hitler continues to fascinate both everyday observers and critics around the world. But what lessons can be learned from looking back on the paintings of one of history’s bloodiest dictators? “The union of malevolence and beauty can occur,” warned Deborah Rothschild, the curator of a 2002 show about the Führer’s years in Vienna. “We must remain vigilant against its seductive power.”

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