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Karl Zerbe



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Recently conserved with funds from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

Karl Zerbe was a German realist painter who immigrated to the United States as a refugee in 1934, fearing Nazi oppression due to his Jewish ancestry. In works such as Armory he revived the use of encaustic paint, an ancient wax-based medium. Here a suit of armor stands amidst a delicately balanced composition of objects, each endowed with an oblique symbolism. As in the work of the German artist Max Beckmann, Zerbe’s compositions are suggestive, loaded with iconographic details that do not add up to a clear narrative. Pinned newspaper clippings throughout the composition recall current events, including World War II, which was at its height when Zerbe made this work. An eagle statue—perhaps a reference to Germany’s coat of arms—peers over the shoulder of the suit of armor, while a fallen paper airplane at bottom left alludes to a downed fighter plane. In addition, a picture frame strung with barbed wire may reference the Nazi party’s persecution of modernist artists. The Nazis removed several of Zerbe’s paintings from German museum collections and destroyed at least one, classifying the work as an example of “degenerate art.” Armory was purchased for the collection by H. W. Janson, a fellow German emigré who acquired important modern art for the Museum during his tenure as curator from 1944 to 1948. [Permanent collection label, 2016. Revised 2023]

  • Artist Karl Zerbe (American, b. Germany, 1903–1972)
  • Title Armory
  • Date 1943
  • Medium Encaustic on canvas
  • Dimensions unframed | 62 1/2 x 40 in.
  • Credit line University purchase, Kende Sale Fund, 1946
  • Object number WU 3780

Caught By Politics: Art of the 1930s and 1940s
Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, Washington University in St. Louis, 01/19/2001 - 03/18/2001

Opening Exhibition of Mark C. Steinberg Memorial Hall
Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, Washington University in St. Louis, 04/29/1960

An Exhibition of Contemporary Art
Fine Arts Center Gallery, University of Arkansas, 04/15/1951 - 05/15/1951

New Accessions, USA
Colorado Springs Fine Art Center, 07/15/1946 - 09/02/1946

Recent Paintings in Encaustic by Karl Zerbe
Downtown Gallery (New York, New York), 10/27/1943 - 11/20/1943

S.W. Missouri State College
S.W. Missouri State College (Springfield, Missouri)

Downtown Gallery

Inscription Recto, lower right corner, in black paint: Zerbe

Inscription Recto, lower right corner, scribed into paint: Zerbe

This artwork record may be incomplete or need refinement. Our staff actively researches the collection and revises records when new information is available. If you have questions or comments about this record, please contact us.