Skip to content

Osthaus, Karl Ernst

    Full Name: Osthaus, Karl Ernst

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 1874

    Date Died: 1921

    Place Born: Hagen, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany

    Place Died: Merano, Bolzano, Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy [Tyrol region]

    Home Country/ies: Germany

    Career(s): art collectors


    Founder the Folkwang-Museum in Hagen, Germany, industrialist and collector. Osthaus was born to wealth. His father was the banker financier Ernst Osthaus and his mother, Selma Funcke (Osthaus), the daughter of a textile industrialist. He was raised in the industrial Westphalian town of his birth and studied at various German-speaking universities, as was common in Germany at the time, at Kiel, Munich, Berlin, Strasbourg, Vienna and Bonn. He graduated from the university in Bonn in 1898, making trips to southern Europe and Asia, feeding and interest in Ethnology and collecting folk art. He returned to Hagen, marrying Gertrud Colsmann, daughter of another wealthy factory owner, in 1899. Osthaus, like many industrial barons in Germany, wanted to make his town a place of culture as well as industry. Around 1900 he decided to collect art, acquiring works by Gauguin, Rodin, Degas, Cézanne, Renoir, Corot and van Gogh. He opened a museum in 1902, which included science displays on the lower level. Osthaus named it “Folkwang” borrowed from “Edda Folkvangar” (in German, “Volkshalle” the assembly hall of Freya). The Folkwang was the first museum solely devoted to modern art that was open to the public. Osthaus hired the Belgian architect-designer Henry van de Velde (1863-1957) to design a Jugendstil interior space for his museum (as well as dresses for his and van de Velde’s wife on opening day). In 1906 Van de Velde also designed Osthaus’s villa, called the Hohenhof, in Hagen. He commissioned the Jugenstil and Symbolist artist Jan Thorn Prikker, who had settled in Hagen, and Henri Matisse to provide decoration. Osthaus acquired the German Expressionist work of Die Brücke, giving early exhibitions to many of its principle artists, including Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Christian Rohlfs and Emil Nolde. Ferdinand Hodler’s famous “The Consecrated One” was installed in a room designed for it in the villa. Osthaus hoped to make Hagen a center of modern architecture as well. In 1909, he began to share his museum space with the Deutscher Werkbund, or German artisan’s guild. Together, they operated the “Deutsche Museum für Kunst in Handel und Gewerbe” (Germany Museum for Art and Trade Works). Osthaus’ civic interest in art and architecture attracted the commissions of other important architects who, in addition to van de Velde, included Richard Riemerschmid, Peter Behrens’ crematorium, and Walter Gropius. Osthaus hoped to build a museum building with the Werkbund, but the first World War prevented this. He himself was pressed into war service. After the war, he received his Ph.D. from Königliche Bayerische Julius-Maximilians-Universität, Würzburg in 1918, writing his dissertation on the topic of stylistic development in art. In 1920 he wrote a biography of van de Velde published by the Museum. Osthaus contracted cancer at age 47 and died. The city of Hagen was unable to raise the funds to buy the Museum’s collection. In 1922 the larger neighboring industrial city of Essen purchased the Osthaus’ collection, setting up the Folkwang Museum there. Ernst Gosebruch became the new museum’s first director, continuing Osthaus’ collecting model. Osthaus’ home town established a museum named for Osthaus after the war, the Karl Ernst Osthaus-Museum, which yearly awards a prize in his memory. During the years of the Third Reich, the Nazis ransacked his home and art. The building was restored as the museum it is today. Osthaus was more than a collector and museum owner. He actively promoted outsider, indigenous, modernist and the craft-arts as art forms deserving to be in a museum setting. Osthaus maintained contact with numerous other progressive museum directors, including the American John Cotton Dana. His museum assisted with Dana’s groundbreaking exhibition, “Modern German Applied Arts,” from the Deutscher Werkbund in 1912.

    Selected Bibliography

    [dissertation:] Grundzüge der Stilentwicklung. Würzburg, 1918, published, Hagen: Hagener Verlagsanstalt, 1918; Van de Velde: Leben und Schaffen des Künstlers. Hagen: Folkwang, 1920; contributed, Naumann, Friedrich, et al. Der Werkbund-Gedanke in den germanischen Ländern: österreich-Ungarn, Schweiz, Holland, Dnemark, Schweden, Norwegen. 7. Jahresversammlung des Deutschen Werkbundes (meeting, Cologne). Jena: E. Diederichs, 1914.


    Hesse-Frielinghaus, Herta, et al. Karl Ernst Osthaus. Leben u[nd] Werk. Recklinghausen: Bongers, 1971; Biraghi, Marco. “Osthausstadt: Hagen 1898-1920: Karl Ernst Osthaus.” Casabella 64, no. 682 (October 2000): 70-7, 99-100; Werner, Alfred. “Osthaus and the Folkwang Museum.” Arts Magazine 38 (February 1964): 35-41; Emil und Ada Nolde, Karl Ernst und Gertrud Osthaus: Briefwechsel. Bonn: Bouvier, 1985; Vogt, Paul. Museum Folkwang Essen: die Geschichte einer Sammlung junger Kunst im Ruhrgebiet. Cologne: DuMont, 1983.


    "Osthaus, Karl Ernst." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

    More Resources

    Search for materials by & about this art historian: