In June 1905, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, his friend Fritz Bleyl and their colleagues at the Technische Hochschule, Erich Heckel and Karl Schmidt, established Die Brücke (The Bridge), Germany’s first modern group of artists, in Dresden. This association was a very explicit response to the imperious need these young artists felt to “cross over to the other side” in search of novelty. “What we had to leave behind was pretty clear to us.Where we were heading was definitely less certain, ” Heckel later admitted. From the outset the group espoused Expressionism, which, more than a specific artistic programme, became the embodiment of everything that was new.
According to the testimony of the architect Fritz Schumacher, a teacher at the Technische Hochschule, the Vincent van Gogh exhibition held at the Galerie Arnold in Dresden in November 1905 had greatly impressed the young members of Die Brücke, who “launched into frenzied enthusiasm, ” and the influence of the Dutch painter’s oeuvre marked the group’s early years. The vibrant, unnatural colours and manner of shaping forms by juxtaposing short, thick, paint-laden brushstrokes in the portrait of Doris with a Ruff Collar, painted by Kirchner around 1906, date it to the initial period characterised by the influence of Van Gogh.
Until it was first shown in 1966 as a portrait of Doris with Ruff Collar, the work had simply been called Girl with Ruff Collar. On other occasions the sitter has been identified as Isabella, another of the painter’s models. Doris Grosse, whose pet name was Dado, was Kirchner’s second mistress during his Dresden period following his affaire with Line, a cabaret dancer. The artist was strongly attracted to her and their relationship lasted until he moved to Berlin in autumn 1911. Years later, writing in his Swiss diary, the artist recalled her “refined sensuality” in a lengthy passage. Doris posed for many portraits, both individual and group, for some nude scenes in the studio and for several of the compositions featuring bathers, painted at the Moritzburg lakes in 1909 and 1910.
The date established for the work has undergone various changes. At the end of his life Kirchner had dated the portrait in 1903; this is not so much unlikely as it is impossible, due to stylistic reasons and to the fact that Kirchner could not have met Doris before travelling to Munich in 1903–4. Later, in Donald Gordon’s catalogue of the artist’s painting published in 1968, the work was dated to two different periods: 1906 and 1908–9, because a photograph of the painting taken by Kirchner shows certain differences in the hair and in the lower left corner, which the author interpreted as subsequent alterations to the work. In both his first catalogue on the Expressionist painting in the Thyssen-Bornemisza collection and the catalogue raisonné of 1992, Peter Vergo recognises the difficulty of dating this portrait and ascribes it to 1906. He considers the year given by the artist, 1903, to be unlikely, as the influence of French Post-Impressionist painting did not begin to be evident in his oeuvre until 1905. Nor does he share Gordon’s opinion that it was subsequently retouched, as there is no evidence of the addition of any brushstrokes; he is inclined to think that the colours are distorted in the photograph Gordon provides as proof.
The present portrait of Doris was one of the first modern paintings purchased by Baron Thyssen. It entered his collection early on, in 1961, together with the portrait of Fränzi Kirchner painted in 1910, through Roman Norbert Ketterer, the dealer who supplied him with much of his German Expressionist painting.