Paul Klee: The Life & Work of an Iconic Artist

With an incredibly large number of graphics, drawings and paintings, the Swiss-German artist is recognized as one of the 20th century's most pioneering artists.

Jul 5, 2024By Alexandra Karg, BA Art History & Literature
Watercolor and drawings by Paul Klee
A watercolor and two drawings by Paul Klee


In the 61 years of his life, the Swiss-German artist Paul Klee pioneered various styles, including Expressionism, Constructivism, Cubism, Primitivism, and Surrealism. This role as a part of many art movements meant he remained an individualist throughout his whole life.


Like Joan Miró or Pablo Picasso, Klee worked with motifs of childlike drawing and the art styles of various then-so-called “primitive people”. Klee once described these elements as stick figures, scribbles, and simplified outlines in his diary. According to the artist, the childish impression of his drawings is the “last professional insight” – which was: “the opposite of real primitiveness”.


Paul Klee Worked With His Left Hand

Photograph of Paul Klee as a Soldier, 1916. Source: Wikimedia Commons


Throughout his life, Paul Klee created an incredibly large number of graphics, drawings, and paintings. In his catalog of works, which he built from 1911 until he died in 1940, several thousand works were listed: 733 panels (paintings on wood or canvas), 3159 colored sheets on paper, 4877 drawings, 95 prints, 51 reverse glass paintings, and 15 sculptures.


Even in the last years of his life, the artist created 1000 works – despite serious illness and physical limitations. Paul Klee is said to have drawn and painted most of his artworks with his left hand – even though he was right-handed.


Early Work

Unnamed (butterfly), Paul Klee, ca. 1892

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Paul Klee was born on December 18, 1879, in Muenchenbuchsee, Switzerland, as a child of two musicians. Paul’s father, Hans Wilhelm Klee, was German and worked as a music teacher, and his mother, Ida Marie Klee, was a Swiss singer. Inspired by his parents, Paul Klee learned to play the violin as a schoolboy. At school, though, the artist also developed another passion: drawing in his notebooks until they were full.  This watercolor of a butterfly, which Klee is said to have painted at the age of 13, dates from this period.


Two MenMeet, Each Supposing the Other to Be of Higher Rank, Paul Klee, 1903, MOMA


Paul Klee had a pronounced sense of humor as a young boy, proven by his early caricatures. This can be seen, for example, in the etching Two Men Meet, Each Supposing the Other to Be of Higher Rank [Invention No. 6] from 1903. Because of the hair and beards, the two men were identified as Emperor Wilhelm II and Franz Joseph I. Obviously confused by their nudity, which takes away all conventional references to honor, the two rulers face each other.


A New Artistic Technique

Portrait of Hans Wilhelm Klee, 1906, glass painting; with a photo of Paul Klee by Hugo Erfurth, 1927


What’s already looming here is that Paul Klee liked to experiment with different painting and drawing techniques. In 1905, the artist developed a new technique; With a needle, he scratched motifs on blackened glass panes. One of these glass paintings is Portrait of the Father from 1906, which shows Hans Wilhelm Klee in a powerful and dominating posture. Klee’s early, solitary work ended in 1910, when he met the printmaker and illustrator Alfred Kubin, who strongly inspired him artistically.


Blue Rider

Candide ou l’optimisme, Part of the illustration of Voltaires, Paul Klee, 1911


Before Paul Klee met Alfred Kubin, he moved to Munich to study drawing and graphic art at the private art school Heinrich Knirr. In February 1900, Klee changed his studies and began studying at the Academy of Arts in Munich in October 1900 in the master class of the painter Franz von Stuck. Klee did not like his studies and left university only one year later. During this short time, something meaningful happened: Paul Klee met his soon-to-be wife Lily Stumpf. They married in 1906. Just one year later, their first son, Felix, was born.


In his creative time, Paul Klee had always been mainly an artist who created graphics and drawings. That did not change until his death in 1940. Graphic arts always played the main role in his oeuvre and half of his total artwork consists of graphic art. When Paul Klee first met the French painter Robert Delaunay< in 1912, he became interested in painting in color. Robert Delaunay’s work is attributed to “orphic” Cubism, also called Orphism. For Klee, examining the work and theories of Delaunay meant turning to abstraction and autonomy of color. In 1911, the German artist also met August Macke and Wassily Kandinsky. He soon became a member of the artist group, “Blue Rider,” founded by Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc in 1910.


Although during this time Paul Klee was becoming more excited about painting in color, he was not yet able to realize his ideas about its use. He himself regarded his experiments as constructed. The final breakthrough to color painting came with the artist’s journey to Tunis in 1914, which led him to an independent style of painting.


Paul Klee’s Mystical Abstract Period (1914-1919)

In the Houses of Saint Germain by Paul Klee, 1914, watercolor. Source: ArtNet


In April 1914, Paul Klee travelled to Tunis. With him were painters August Macke and Louis Moilliet. During this time, Klee painted watercolors that depict the strong light and color of the North African landscape, as well as reflected the style of Paul Cézanne and Robert Delaunay’s cubist concept of form. Two of the paintings the artist created during his twelve-day study trip are In the Houses of Saint Germain and Streetcafé.


Circles connected with ribbons, Paul Klee, 1914, watercolor.


While the artist was in Tunis, he also produced some abstract paintings. However, there was no final separation from the object in his paintings. Klee’s experiments with watercolor lasted more than ten years and had led him to an independent painterly work, in which the colorful world of Tunis became the basis of his ideas.


Mourning flowers by Paul Klee, 1917, watercolor. Source: Christie’s


A few months after his return to Munich in 1914, World War I started and the artist was called to military service. However, he was spared a frontline operation. It was under the influence of his military service that the painting Funeral Flowers from 1917 was created. With its graphic signs, vegetable and fantastic forms, it gives a forecast of his later works, which harmoniously unite graphics, color, and the object.


Bauhaus Period and Klee’s Time in Düsseldorf

Twittering Machine by Paul Klee, 1922.


Even after Paul Klee was appointed to work at Bauhaus Weimar, and later the one in Dessau, a change in his work was noticeable. Abstract works with graphic elements such as the 1922 painting Twittering-Machine, can be found from this period.


This is also the first time there was a critical discussion about technology in his work. At first sight, Goldfish, 1925 has a childlike appearance but it is also filled with symbolic significance. Through variations of the canvas background and his combined painting techniques, Klee always achieved new color and pictorial effects. During his professorship at the Academy of Art in Düsseldorf, Germany, Klee painted one of his largest pictures: Parnassum (100 x 126 cm). In this mosaic-like work, Klee worked in the style of Pointillism and once again combined different techniques and compositional principles.


Goldfish by Paul Klee, 1925.


When the Nazis came to power in Germany, Paul Klee not only lost his position in Düsseldorf in 1933, but he was also defamed as a “degenerate artist”. Klee was an avowed antifascist from the very beginning and fled with his family to Bern, Switzerland. In his last years, the artist fell seriously ill. Despite physical limitations, his productivity increased. In Switzerland, Klee turned mainly to large-format images. His works then dealt with ambivalent topics that express his fate, the political situation, and his wit.


Paul Klee’s Pedagogical Sketchbook

Paul Klee’s Lecture Notes for His Bauhaus Teachings, 1920s.


Paul Klee’s Pedagogical Sketchbook is a compilation of his notes as a teacher at Germany’s Bauhaus and is often hailed as one of the finest contributions of his career. Klee compiled this manual from over 39,000 pages of lecture notes from the 1920s. A century later, these notes are just as relevant as ever, with Paul Klee outlining his innovative ways of encouraging creativity in students.


Paul Klee: The Later Years

Revolution of the Viaduct by Paul Klee, 1937.


Two famous examples that were created in this period are the watercolor Musician, a stickman’s face with a partly serious, partly smiling mouth, and Revolution of the Viaduct, which is one of his best-known pictures of all time. These two works can also be seen as Klee’s contribution to anti-fascist art. In a tragic end, after years of illness, Paul Klee died June 29, 1940, in a sanatorium in Muralto.


Originally Published: August 27, 2019. Last updated: July 5, 2024. 

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By Alexandra KargBA Art History & LiteratureHey! I am Alexandra Karg. I am researching, writing and lecturing on topics in the field of art and culture. In my hometown of Berlin I completed my studies in literature and art history. Since then I have been working as a journalist and writer. Besides writing, it is my passion to read, travel and visit museums and galleries. On you will find articles by me about art and culture, especially about topics referring to the 20th century and the present.