The History of Nida Artists’ Colony

Nida artists’ colony was one of the first formations of its kind in the Baltic Sea region. Nida, a remote fishing village, was first noticed by writers in the 19th century. Later, they were joined by artists. At the end of the century, professors and students from Koenigsberg Art Academy started visiting during the summer. Lovis Corinth (1858–1925) visited Nida while he was still a student at the Academy (1876–1879), and came back after 1880. Around 1888, the painter and poet Heinrich Kruger (1863–1901), who had roots in Gumbine, invited Ernst Bischoff-Culm (1870–1925), the alumni of Koenigsberg Art Academy who had the greatest influence on the formation of the artists’ colony, to come to Nida. Artists would stay at Hermann Blode’s hotel in Skruzdynė, which opened in 1867, and which soon became the centre of the colony.

In the early period of the artists’ colony, the group of artists included Hans Bepp-Borschke (1888–1914), from Koenigsberg, and the poet Walther Heymann (1882–1961). After he finished his studies, between 1911 and 1944 he spent every summer painting on the Curonian Spit. It also included Edith Wirth-Sukkau (1881–1941) and her husband Herman Wirth (1877–1956). During the First World War, Pranas Domsaitis (1880–1965) also visited Nida.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Nida became a favourite place with German artists and intellectuals to spend their summer holidays and engage in creative work. Painters, photographers, writers, actors and composers found the Curonian Spit an oasis of peace and a source of creative inspiration. Discussions on trends in art, followed by music and poetry, would take place on the “artists’ terrace” at Blode’s hotel, and would go on till midnight.

The Expressionist Max Pechstein (1881–1955) was drawn to Nida after seeing some landscapes painted by Bischoff-Culm in an exhibition in Berlin in 1909. He spent five summers in Nida until 1939, and completed many Expressionist paintings. Members of the artists’ colony espoused diverse artistic trends: Impressionism, Realism, Symbolism and Naturalism. The arrival of Pechstein and Karl Schmidt-Rotluff (1884–1976, he visited Nida in 1913) provoked much confusion and discussions between Impressionists and Expressionists in the colony. After the First World War, Expressionism became the prevailing style. It was propagated by Ernst Mollenhauer (1892–1963), who took over the hotel after Blode, his father-in-law, fell ill. With his help, the colony flourished in the Thirties and Forties.

When the Klaipėda region was incorporated into Lithuania in 1923, the Curonian Spit became a source of inspiration for Lithuanian artists, but it continued to attract German artists too. The spirit of “free art” remained alive in Nida, unlike in Germany, where in 1933 a campaign against modern art, called “degenerate” (Entartete Kunst), was mounted by the National Socialist regime.

In the interwar period, Nida was visited by Alfred Partikel (1888–1945), Eduard Bischoff (1890–1974), Karl Eulenstein (1892–1981), Fritz Burmann (1892–1945), Werner Riemann (1893–1936), Karl Buch (1901–1988), Gertruda Lerbs (1902–1968) and many other artists. In the Forties, houses and studios in the local style were built by Carl Knauf (1867–1944) and Richard Birnstengel (1887–1968), and in 1929–1930 a summerhouse was built by Thomas Mann, the most famous visitor to Nida artists’ colony.

Nida, which was called “the Prussian Sahara” in the 19th century, was renamed “a paradise of painters” and “a land of miracles” in the 20th century. Mollenhauer, who lived in Germany after the war, described it as follows: “It is a landscape for painters, full of light and space, water and sun [...] Nida was a meeting place for artists and other people seeking the experience of untouched nature and who hated any kind of crowd.”

Until 1945, about 200 artists had come to Nida, half of them originating from East Prussia. These artists were fascinated by the Curonian Spit, its architecture, its working life and crafts, its natural features, and the lifestyle and rhythms of its fishermen. The Second World War interrupted the development of the artists’ colony. The impressive collection of paintings that had been built up in Blode’s hotel was destroyed at the beginning of 1945, and a lot of works by artists who had been living and working here also disappeared. A large number of artists from the colony retained their feelings for the Curonian Spit, and since they could not come back to Nida after the war, they created  their paintings from memory.

Since the restoration of Lithuania’s independence, Nida artists’ colony has been rescued from oblivion, with its history being explored by Lithuanian art historians and museum curators. Exhibitions of work by artists who used to come to the Curonian Peninsula to work are held regularly.


Kristina Jokubavičienė

LAM Pranas Domšaitis Gallery, Klaipėda