Karl Schmidt was born in 1826. He was educated as a lawyer but decided against following his profession because his political, social, and moral views made it impossible for him to serve what he considered to be the authoritarian government led by Otto von Bismarck. He became a stone mason and house builder, who developed strong socialist opinions after reading the work of Karl Marx.
He married Katharina Rupp, the daughter of Julius Rupp, the leader of the Free Congregation. On 8th July 1867, she gave birth to a daughter, Käthe. Karl joined the Social Democratic Party (SDP). According to Martha Kearns, the author of Käthe Kollwitz (1976): "Schmidt was a man of the future in his educational as well as political views. Unlike many Prussian fathers... the head of the Schmidt family was not a strict disciplinarian and he did not believe in corporal punishment. A moral idealist, he taught his children to correct their behaviour through self-control, choosing to guide rather than force their development.... In a day when girls were rarely encouraged to aspire to roles other than those of wife and mother, he personally helped to develop the individual talents of each of his three daughters."
It was very important to Karl Schmidt that his children grew up with a sympathy for the plight of the working-class. Käthe remembers her father reading the poem, The Song of the Shirt, written by the English poet, Thomas Hood. Käthe later explained that as her father "read the last lines, he became so moved that his voice grew fainter and fainter until he was unable to finish."
Käthe later recalled that her father and grandfather, Julius Rupp, were both important to her development: "Although I thought that Grandfather's religious force did not live on in me, a deep respect remained, a respect for his teachings, his personality and all the Congregation stood for. I might say that in recent years I have felt both Grandfather and Father within myself, as my origins. Father was nearest to me because he had been my guide to socialism, in the sense of the longed-for brotherhood of men."
The Schmidt family involvement with the Social Democratic Party (SDP) enabled Käthe to meet another young member, Karl Kollwitz. He was an orphan who lived with a family in Konigsberg. Like her father he was passionately interested in politics and introduced her to the writings of August Bebel. This included his pioneering work, Woman and Socialism (1879). In the book Bebel argued that it was the goal of socialists "not only to achieve equality of men and women under the present social order, which constitutes the sole aim of the bourgeois women's movement, but to go far beyond this and to remove all barriers that make one human being dependent upon another, which includes the dependence of one sex upon another."
In 1884 Karl Schmidt arranged for two of his daughters, Käthe and Lise, to visit Berlin. While in the city they stayed with their elder sister, Julie, and her husband. He was a close friend of the young poet and dramatist, Gerhart Hauptman. He invited Käthe and Lise to a dinner party that was attended by two artists, Hugo Ernst Schmidt and Arno Holz. Hauptman described Käthe as "fresh as a rose in dew, a charming, clever girl, who, because of her extreme modesty, did not speak freely about her calling as an artist but let it be known by her sure, sensitive manner." Käthe was also impressed with Hauptman: "It was an evening that left its mark... a wonderful foretaste of the life which was gradually but irresistibly opening up for me."
Karl Kollwitz became a medical student and in 1884 he asked Käthe to marry him. Her agreement to his proposal upset her father who feared that marriage would inhibit her artistic career. He arranged for her to study at the Berlin School for Women Artists, where she studied under Karl Stauffer-Bern.
In 1888 Käthe went to study at the Munich Women's Art School. She also joined the informal Composition Club, that met at the Glücks-Café. Other members included Otto Greiner, Alexander Oppler and Gottlieb Elster. Käthe impressed fellow members when she exhibited for the first time at the club. The drawings were illustrations of a coal miner's strike. That night she wrote in her journal: "For the first time I felt that my hopes were confirmed; I imagined a wonderful future and was so filled with thoughts of glory and happiness that I could not sleep all night."
Käthe and Emma Jeep also joined the Munich Etching Club. Later, Jeep described Käthe's first lesson: "The coal-black plate was now ready for drawing, so she found an empty table to work. Her righthand gripped the etching knife surely as she pressed it into the black wax. The manner in which she etched was much freer and more expressive than what they were used to; her etching looked more like a pen-and-ink drawing. Gradually the copper lines showed the face of an old man... The copper face shone out impressively from the blackened plate; she felt satisfied, and ready to etch... She continued to work industriously. Her style of secure and penetrating lines was already apparent."
According to the author of Käthe Kollwitz (1976), Käthe gradually began to give up on painting: "By this time she was able to draw with pen, pencil, chalk, and charcoal; paint with ink and wash, and etch; but she could not lift the same scene intact onto canvas. Try as she might to perfect her painterly technique in the same way that she had mastered drawing and etching, she found that she had no feel for color or its great and subtle uses; nor did colour or nature inspire her in the same way as the lines and expressions of working people."
In 1891 Karl Kollwitz qualified as a doctor and obtained a position in a working-class area of Berlin. In a response to the growing support of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), Otto von Bismarck had introduced the first European system of health insurance in which accident, sickness, and old age expenses of the workers and their families were covered by a government health insurance. As a socialist, Karl wanted to serve the poor and this new legislation made this possible.
Karl now asked Käthe to marry him. Käthe recorded in her journal how disappointed her father had been by the news: "He had expected a much faster completion of my studies, and then exhibitions and success. Moreover, as I have mentioned, he was very skeptical about my intention to follow two careers, that of artist and wife." Shortly before her wedding on 13th June, 1891, her father told her, "You have made your choice now. You will scarcely be able to do both things. So be wholly what you have chosen to be."
In 1893 Käthe Kollwitz took part in a joint exhibition of Berlin artists. One leading art critic, Ludwig Pietsch, complained that the organisers had allowed a woman to exhibit. However, another critic, Julius Elias, wrote: "In almost every respect the talent of a young woman stands out. A young woman who will be able to bear the insult of this first rejection lightly, for she is assured of a rich artistic future. Frau Kollwitz perceives nature readily and intensely, using clear, well-formed lines. She is attracted to unusual light and deep colour tones. Hers is a very earnest display of artwork." Encouraged by these positive comments, Kollwitz began work on a series of drawings that illustrated the novel, Germinal.
On 28th February, 1893, Käthe Kollwitz attended a performance of The Weavers, a new play by Gerhart Hauptmann. The play dealt with a real historical event. In June 1844 disturbances and riots occurred in the Prussian province of Silesia during an economic recession. A large number of weavers attacked warehouses and destroyed the new machinery that was being used in the industry. The Prussian Army arrived on the scene and in an attempt to restore order fired into the crowd, killing 11 people and wounding many others. The leaders of the weavers were arrested, flogged, and imprisoned. Karl Marx wrote about this event, claiming that the uprising marked the birth of a German workers' movement.
The theatre critic, Barrett H. Clark, has argued in The Continental Drama of Today (1914): "Hauptmann may be said to have created a new form of drama in The Weavers, and that form is what may be designated as the tableau series form, with no hero but a community. As the play is not a close-knit entity, the first act is casual, and might open at almost any point; and since it starts with a picture, or part of a picture, there is hardly anything to be known of the past. The result is that no exposition is needed. The audience sees a state of affairs, it does not lend its attention and interest to a story or the beginning of a plot or intrigue. This first act merely establishes the relation between the weavers and the manufacturers. There is no direct hint given in the first act as to what is to come in the second; the first is a play in itself, a situation which does not necessarily have to be developed. It does, however, prepare for the revolt, by showing the discontent among the downtrodden people, and it also enlists the sympathy of the audience."
Despite a Berlin police ban on all public performances of this play, the Berliner Freie Bühne, featuring Else Lehmann, performed the work. Käthe Kollwitz later recalled: "The performance was given in the morning.... My husband's work kept him from going, but I was there, burning with anticipation. The best actors of the day participated, with Else Lehmann playing the young weaver's wife. In the evening there was a large gathering to celebrate, and Hauptmann was hailed as the leader of youth.... The performance was a milestone in my work. I dropped the series on Germinal and set to work on The Weavers."
Käthe Kollwitz spent the next five years producing a series of lithographs illustrating the uprising. 1. Poverty; 2. Death (a weaver's child dies of hunger); 3. Conspiracy (the weavers plan to avenge the deaths of their children); 4. Weavers on the March (the weavers march to the factory owner's home); 5. Attack (the weavers attack the mansion owned by the factory owner); 6. The End (the consequences of the uprising).
Martha Kearns has argued: "Kollwitz's meticulous craft and her aesthetic and political vision of the working-class man and woman are apparent in The Revolt of the Weavers. The first lithograph, Poverty, pictures a crowded room in which a child is sleeping in a bed in the foreground. The mother, with deeply wrinkled brow, is stooped over the bed, her large, bony hands clutching her head in despair. Father and another child sit huddled by the back window, anxiously watching the sleeping child. The small window lightens the sleeping child's face, but only partially draws out the features of the watching family. The parents' steady gaze at their sick child reflects uneasy despair. An empty loom, ominous sign of unemployment, fills the back of the room."
In the summer of 1896 Karl Schmidt became very ill. With his wife he moved to Rauschen to recuperate. Käthe Kollwitz produced a drawing for him on his seventieth birthday. Käthe recorded in her diary: "He was overjoyed. I can still remember how he ran through the house calling again and again to Mother to see what little Käthe had done."
Karl Schmidt died in the spring of 1897. Käthe admitted that his death affected her art: "I was so depressed because I could no longer give him the pleasure of seeing the work publicly exhibited that I dropped the idea of a show."