Still Life with Three Skulls

Max Beckmann (German, 1884–1950)


55.2 x 89.5 cm (21 3/4 x 35 1/4 in.)

Accession Number


Medium or Technique

Oil on canvas

Not On View





Beckmann fled Germany in 1937, taking refuge in Amsterdam, where he painted this still life during the final months of World War II. He combines a modern style of flattened space, schematic forms, and intense colors with traditional still-life objects-skulls, an extinguished candle, playing cards-that suggest the frailty and transience of human life. The artist described these years as “a truly grotesque time, full to the brim with work, Nazi persecutions, bombs, hunger.” In the choice of objects, the predominance of black, and the thick, rough paint, this still life captures the grim mood underlying such words.


Lower right: beckmann / A 45.


May 29, 1945, sold by the artist to Paul Cassirer and Co., Amsterdam [see note 1]; September 10, 1946, sold by Cassirer to Curt Valentin; November 19, 1946, sold by Valentin to Lois (Mrs. Culver) Orswell, Pomfret Center, CT [see note 2]; 1967, gift of Mrs. Culver Orswell to the MFA. (Accession Date: November 8, 1967)

[1] According to a letter from a representative of Paul Cassirer to the MFA (May 9, 1968). Jan Fontein, former MFA director, wrote to Theodore Stebbins of the MFA (October 12, 1994) that it may have been Cassirer's agent, Helmuth Luetjens, who was responsible for the purchase. Luetjens knew Beckmann during the war. [2] According to a letter from Mrs. Culver Orswell (1968).

Credit Line

Gift of Mrs. Culver Orswell


© Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.