The Life and Art of Paul Klee

Paul Klee - portrait of the German / Swiss artist & painter at his Bauhaus Studio in Weimar, Germany, 1924.
Klee at his studio in Weimar, Germany, 1924. Getty Images

Paul Klee (1879-1940) was a Swiss-born German artist who was one of the most important artists of the 20th century. His abstract work was varied and could not be categorized, but was influenced by expressionism, surrealism, and cubism. His primitive drawing style and use of symbols in his art revealed his wit and childlike perspective. He also wrote prolifically about color theory and art in diaries, essays, and lectures. His collection of lectures, "Writings on Form and Design Theory," published in English as the "Paul Klee Notebooks," is one of the most important treatises on modern art.

Early Years

Klee was born in Münchenbuchsee, Switzerland on December 18, 1879, to a Swiss mother and a German father, both of whom were accomplished musicians. He grew up in Bern, Switzerland, where his father had been transferred to work as the conductor of the Bern concert orchestra.

Klee was an adequate, but not overly enthusiastic student. He was particularly interested in his study of Greek and continued to read Greek poetry in the original language throughout his life. He was well-rounded, but his love of art and music were clearly evident. He drew constantly — ten sketchbooks survive from his childhood — and also continued to play music, even as an extra in the Municipal Orchestra of Bern.

Based on his broad education, Klee could have gone into any profession, but chose to become an artist because, as he said in the 1920s, "it seemed to be lagging behind and he felt that perhaps he could help to advance it." He became a very influential painter, draughtsman, printmaker, and art teacher. However, his love of music continued to have a lifelong influence on his unique and idiosyncratic art.

Klee went to Munich in 1898 to study at the private Knirr Art School, working with Erwin Knirr, who was very enthusiastic about having Klee as his student, and expressed the opinion at the time that "if Klee persevered the result might be extraordinary." Klee studied drawing and painting with Knirr and then with Franz Stuck at the Munich Academy.

In June of 1901, after three years of study in Munich, Klee traveled to Italy where he spent most of his time in Rome. After that time he returned to Bern in May of 1902 to digest what he had absorbed in his travels. He stayed there until his marriage in 1906, during which time he produced a number of etchings which garnered some attention.

Family and Career

During the three years Klee spent studying in Munich he met the pianist Lily Stumpf, who would later become his wife. In 1906 Klee returned to Munich, a center of art and artists at the time, to advance his career as an artist and to marry Stumpf, who already had an active career there. They had a son named Felix Paul a year later.

For the first five years of their marriage, Klee stayed home and tended to the child and home, while Stumpf continued to teach and perform. Klee did both graphic artwork and painting, but struggled with both, as domestic demands competed with his time.

In 1910, the designer and illustrator Alfred Kubin visited his studio, encouraged him, and became one of his most significant collectors. Later that year Klee exhibited 55 drawings, watercolors and etchings in three different cities in Switzerland, and in 1911 had his first one-man show in Munich.

In 1912, Klee participated in the second Blue Rider (Der Blaue Reider) Exhibition, devoted to graphic work, at the Goltz Gallery in Munich. Other participants included Vasily Kandinsky, Georges Braque, Andre Dérain, and Pablo Picasso, whom he later met during a visit to Paris. Kandinsky became a close friend.

Klee and Klumpf lived in Munich until 1920, except for Klee's absence during three years of military service.  

In 1920, Klee was appointed to the faculty of the Bauhaus under Walter Gropius, where he taught for a decade, first in Weimar until 1925 and then in Dessau, its new location, beginning in 1926, lasting until 1930. In 1930 he was asked to teach at the Prussian State Academy in Dusseldorf, where he taught from 1931 to 1933, when he was fired from his job after the Nazis took notice of him and ransacked his house.

He and his family then returned to his hometown of Bern, Switzerland, where he had spent two or three months every summer since moving to Germany.

In 1937, 17 of Klee's paintings were included in the Nazi's notorious "Degenerate Art" exhibit as examples of the corruption of art. Many of Klee's works in public collections were seized by the Nazis. Klee responded to Hitler's treatment of artists and general inhumanity in his own work, though, often disguised by seemingly childlike images.

Influences on His Art

Klee was ambitious and idealistic but had a demeanor that was reserved and calm. He believed in a gradual organic evolution of events rather than forcing change, and his systematic approach to his work echoed this methodical approach to life.

Klee was primarily a draftsman (left-handed, incidentally). His drawings, sometimes seemingly very childlike, were very precise and controlled, much like other German artists such as Albrecht Dürer.

Klee was a keen observer of nature and natural elements, which was an inexhaustible source of inspiration to him. He often had his students observe and draw tree branching, human circulatory systems, and tanks of fish to study their movement.

It wasn't until 1914, when Klee traveled to Tunisia, that he began to understand and explore color. He was further inspired in his color explorations by his friendship with Kandinsky and the works of the French painter, Robert Delaunay. From Delaunay, Klee learned what color could be when used purely abstractly, independent of its descriptive role.

Klee was also influenced by his predecessors, such as Vincent van Gogh, and his peers — Henri Matisse, Picasso, Kandinsky, Franz Marc, and other members of the Blue Rider Group — who believed that art should express the spiritual and metaphysical rather than merely what is visible and tangible.

Throughout his life music was a major influence, evident in the visual rhythm of his images and in the staccato notes of his color accents. He created a painting much like a musician plays a piece of music, as if making music visible or visual art audible.

Famous Quotes

  • "Art does not reproduce the visible but makes it visible."
  • "A drawing is simply a line going for a walk."
  • "A line is a dot that went for a walk."
  • "Color possesses me. I don't have to pursue it. It will possess me always, I know it. That is the meaning of this happy hour: Color and I are one. I am a painter."
  • "To paint well means only this: to put the right colors in the right spot." 


Klee died in 1940 at the age of 60 after suffering from a mysterious illness that struck him at the early age of 35, and was later diagnosed as scleroderma. Near the end of his life, he created hundreds of paintings while fully aware of his impending death.

Klee's later paintings are in a different style as a result of his disease and physical limitations. These paintings have thick dark lines and large areas of color. According to an article in the quarterly Journal of Dermatology, "Paradoxically, it was Klee’s disease that brought new clarity and depth to his work, and added much to his development as an artist."

Klee is buried in Bern, Switzerland.


Klee created more than 9.000 works of art during his life, consisting of a personal abstract pictorial language of signs, lines, shapes, and colors during a specific time in history amid the backdrop of World War I and World War II.

His automatic paintings and use of color inspired the surrealists, abstract expressionists, Dadaists, and color field painters. His lectures and essays on color theory and art are some of the most important to ever be written, rivaling even the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci.

Klee had a widespread influence on painters who followed him and there have been several large retrospective exhibitions of his work in Europe and America since his death, including one at the Tate Modern, called "Paul Klee - Making Visible," as recently as 2013-2014.

Following are some of his artworks in chronological order.

"Wald Bau," 1919

Abstract mixed-media painting of a forest
Wald Bau (forest-construction), 1919, Paul Klee, mixed-media chalk, 27 x 25 cm. Leemage/Corbis Historical/Getty Images

In this abstract painting entitled "Wald Bau, Forest Construction," there are references to an evergreen forest intermingled with gridded elements suggestive of walls and paths. The painting mixes symbolic primitive drawing with a representational use of color.

"Stylish Ruins," 1915-1920/Formal Experiments

Abstract painting with letters and symbols
Stylish Ruins, by Paul Klee. Geoffrey Clements/Corbis Historical/Getty Images

"Stylish Ruins" is one of Klee's formal experiments done between 1915 and 1920 when he was experimenting with words and images.

"The Bavarian Don Giovanni," 1915-1920/Formal Experiments

Abstract painting with female names
The Bavarian Don Giovanni, 1919, Paul Klee. Heritage Images/Hulton Fine Art/Getty Images

In "The Bavarian Don Giovanni" (Der bayrische Don Giovanni), Klee used words within the image itself, indicating his admiration for Mozart's opera, Don Giovanni, as well as certain contemporary sopranos and his own love interests. According to the Guggenheim Museum description, it is a "veiled self-portrait."

"Camel in a Rhythmic Landscape of Trees," 1920

Abstract painting of geometric shapes in rows titled Camel in a Rhythmic Landscape of Trees
Camel in a Rhythmic Landscape of Trees, 1920, by Paul Klee. Heritage Images/Hulton Fine Art/Getty Images

"Camel in a Rhythmic Landscape of Trees" is one of the first paintings Klee did in oils and shows his interest in color theory, draftsmanship, and music. It is an abstract composition of multicolored rows dotted with circles and lines representing trees, but is also reminiscent of musical notes on a staff, suggesting a camel walking through a musical score. 

This painting is one of a series of similar paintings Klee did while working and teaching at the Bauhaus in Weimar.

"Abstract Trio," 1923

Abstract pen and watercolor painting titled Abstract Trio by Paul Klee
Abstract Trio, 1923, by Paul Klee, watercolor and ink on paper,. Fine Art/Corbis Historical/Getty Images

Klee copied a smaller pencil drawing, called "Theater of Masks," in creating the painting, "Abstract Trio." This painting, however, suggests three musical performers, musical instruments, or their abstract sound patterns, and the title alludes to music, as do the titles of some of his other paintings.

Klee himself was an accomplished violinist, and practiced the violin for an hour every day before painting.

"Northern Village," 1923

Multi-colored gridded watercolor painting by Paul Klee titled Northern Village
Northern Village, 1923, by Paul Klee, watercolor on chalk priming on paper, 28.5 x 37.1 cm. Leemage/Hulton Fine Art/Getty Images

"Northern Village" is one of the many paintings Klee created that demonstrates his use of the grid as an abstract way to organize color relationships.

"Ad Parnassum," 1932

Abstract painting of a building by Paul Klee
Ad Parnassum, 1932, by Paul Klee. Alinari Archives/Corbis Historical/Getty Images

"Ad Parnassum" was inspired by Klee's trip to Egypt in 1928-1929 and is considered by many to be one of his masterpieces. It is a mosaic-like piece done in a pointillist style, which Klee began to use around 1930. It is also one of his largest paintings at 39 x 50 inches. In this painting, Klee created the effect of a pyramid from the repetition of individual dots and lines and shifts. It is a complex, multilayered work, with tonal shifts in the small squares creating the effect of light.

"Two Emphasized Areas," 1932

Abstract painting of intersecting grids and squares of different colors, by Paul Klee
Two Emphasized Areas, 1932, by Paul Klee. Francis G. Mayer/Corbis Historical/Getty Images

"Two Emphasized Areas" is another of Klee's complex, multilayered pointillist paintings.

"Insula Dulcamara," 1938

Abstract linear Painting in pastel colors titled Insula Dulcamara
Insula Dulcamara, 1938, oil on newsprint,by Paul Klee. VCG Wilson/Corbis Historical/Getty Images

"Insula Dulcamara" is one of Klee's masterpieces. The colors give it a cheerful feeling and some suggested it be called "Calypso's Island," which Klee rejected. Like Klee's other later paintings, this painting consists of wide black lines which represent coastlines, the head is an idol, and other curved lines suggest some sort of impending doom. There is a boat sailing by on the horizon. The painting alludes to Greek mythology and the passage of time.

Caprice In February, 1938

Abstract linear painting by Paul Klee
Caprice in February, 1938, by Paul Klee. Barney Burstein/Corbis Historical/Getty Images

"Caprice in February" is another later work which shows the use of heavier lines and geometric forms with larger areas of color. At this stage of his life and career he varied his color palette depending on his mood, sometimes using brighter colors, sometimes using more somber colors. 

Resources and Further Reading

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Marder, Lisa. "The Life and Art of Paul Klee." ThoughtCo, Jan. 22, 2018, Marder, Lisa. (2018, January 22). The Life and Art of Paul Klee. Retrieved from Marder, Lisa. "The Life and Art of Paul Klee." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 24, 2018).