Der Blaue Reiter: Accessing the Avant-Garde

Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) Gabriele Münter - The Yellow House (1909). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Gabriele Münter - The Yellow House (1909). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

By the early years of the 20th century, abstraction had become a buzzword in the art world. Form was broken down and colors danced in compositions in new ways within artistic circles around the globe. Few, though, were as pioneering as the artists of Der Blaue Reiter (“The Blue Rider”). 

Taking its name from one of the group’s experimental paintings, this group of artists ventured into experimental modes more enthusiastically than many of their contemporaries. In doing so, the artists of Der Blaue Reiter encouraged avant-garde abstract expression that would inspire generations to come.

Enter into this kaleidoscopic world of Der Blaue Reiter as we explore the group’s history. In addition to charting their evolution from the movement’s origins to its apex, we’ll examine some of Der Blaue Reiter’s most central artists and works that came to define the style.

Der Blaue Reiter’s Origins

The concept of Der Blaue Reiter first emerged in the paintings of Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky. In these early iterations, like that seen in The Blue Rider (1903), Kandinsky formulated a literal figure that was also metaphorical: symbolic for its use of vibrant blue, this figure on horseback also stood for the ability of paintings to transport the viewer from the real to fantastical or mystical realms. This powerful form, combined with Kandinsky’s ever-loosening application of paint, caught the eye of Franz Marc, who joined forces with Kandinsky and other artists, like August Macke, to form a collective called Der Blaue Reiter.

In 1911, the group wrote what could be considered their manifesto, “Der Blaue Reiter,” and in this document they relayed their shared vision of an art that could:

Heighten Emotional Impact

Seeking to amplify the spiritual reflectivity of the compositional space, the artists of Der Blaue Reiter channeled deep colors and striking brushstrokes to create emotionally evocative works.

Transport Viewers

Positioning the compositional space as one primed for transcendence, the artists of Der Blaue Reiter sought to surpass the material world to conjure visual sensations that resonated deep within the audience’s psyches or spiritual sensibilities.   

Pursue Novelty

Rather than adhering to traditional approaches, the artists of Der Blaue Reiter embraced unconventional methods and techniques. For example, they thrived on the impassioned colors of Fauvism and the versatility of forms found in global art circles, from African sculpture to Chinese paintings.

Der Blaue Reiter’s Key Artists and Artworks

A look at some of the more notable works created by the artists of the Blaue Reiter reveals this unbridled creativity. Let’s learn more about these artists via the lens of these paintings.

Wassily Kandinsky’s Improvisation 27 (Garden of Love II) (1912)

Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider)

Wassily Kandinsky, Improvisation 27 (Garden of Love II) (1912). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Originally from Moscow, Kandinsky first studied economics and law before turning to a career in art in his 30s. The early years of this painterly career revealed Kandinsky’s rapid embrace of increasingly abstract works, such that by the beginning of the 1910s his paintings abandoned representational form almost altogether. Paintings like Improvisation 27 (Garden of Love II) exemplify this total abstraction, as a range of both subtle and saturated colors as well as loosely defined forms seem to dance across the canvas. The title also reveals Kandinsky’s theoretical approach: titling this work as if it were a musical piece, Kandinsky was nodding to his theory that colors, like musical notes, could combine in scintillating visual harmonies.

Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider)

Franz Marc, The Foxes (1913). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Franz Marc’s The Foxes (1913)

Crucial to the advent of Der Blaue Reiter, Franc Marc had been inspired to experiment with color and form from his days as a student studying between Munich and Paris at the turn of the 20th century. He used that exposure to some of the central voices of European modernism to develop a style that comprised bright colors and a consistent exploration of form. In The Foxes, Marc showcases his perennial fascination with animals. Horses, bulls, and foxes were just some of the myriad creatures Marc channeled in his work as a celebration of nature but also as a space for compositional experimentation. In this work, for example, one can see Marc toying with the fractured feel of a Cubist work merged with an electrified palette.

August Macke’s Lady in a Green Jacket (1913)

Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider)

August Macke, Lady in a Green Jacket (1913). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Originally inspired by the bold, eccentric colors of the Fauves, August Macke evolved artistically upon befriending both Marc and Kandinsky into an even more abstract method. This can be seen in Lady in a Green Jacket, where figures are rendered not with contours but rather in broad strokes of paint. Depth collapses such that the composition envelops the viewer in rich color.

Gabriele Münter’s Jawlensky and Werefkin (1909)

Gabriele Münter’s Jawlensky and Werefkin (1909).

Gabriele Münter, Jawlensky and Werefkin (1909). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

One of the few women painters to rise to prominence within Der Blaue Reiter, Gabriele Münter was a close associate of Kandinsky’s who was compelled to push the bounds of Impressionist expression. In this double-portrait, Jawlensky and Werefkin, Münter succeeded in doing so by illustrating two fellow Blaue Reiter painters, Alexej von Jawlensky and Marianne von Werefkin, who was Jawlensky’s partner for nearly thirty years. Compositionally similar to many later 19th-century Impressionist works for its intimate perspective on this relaxing couple, Münter’s painting is nevertheless infused with an electric palette of powerful colors that conveys both figures vividly. 

Albert Bloch’s The Green Domino (1913)

Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider)

Albert Bloch, The Green Domino (1913). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The only American painter to be associated with the artists of Der Blaue Reiter, Albert Bloch moved from the Midwest to Germany around 1910 and soon was embroiled in the Der Blaue Reiter philosophy. Such can be seen in The Green Domino,where a central figure that gives the painting its name seems to float in a sea of abstract swatches of color. The space of Bloch’s work disintegrates into a tantalizing abstract assemblage where the viewer must piece together the colors and forms provided. 

Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) Alexei von Jawlensky

Alexei von Jawlensky, Savior’s Face (1919). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Alexei von Jawlensky’s Savior’s Face (1919)

Alexei von Jawlensky’s fascination with abstract painting began in the late 1890s as he fell under the influence of artists like Paul Serusier and the Nabis as well as Kandinsky. He manifested this impact at first with an increasingly prismatic palette, but as time progressed he became increasingly focused on the breakdown of form. This emphasis is expressed in Jawlensky’s Savior’s Face, part of a powerful multi-painting series created between 1917 and the early 1920s.  In this painting, Jawlensky conjured a face in frontal view rendered in bold lines and soft washes of color as if to test the bounds of form. Even in this simplicity, Jawlensky’s faces convey evocative emotions. 

Marianne von Werefkin’s The Monk (1932)

Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) Marianne von Werefkin

Marianne von Werefkin, The Monk (1932). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Initially a student of Russian Realist painter Ilya Repin, Marianne von Werefkin was compelled to carry her work into the expressive realm of Der Blaue Reiter after entering into what would become an extended romantic entanglement with Alexei von Jawlensky in 1892. In The Monk, Werefkin’s dynamic palette can be seen in full force. Though capturing a seemingly quotidian scene – a monk in a moment of religious reflection in the presence of the crucified Christ – fiery reds and oranges combine with deep aubergines to create a fantastic, almost surreal landscape.  Werefkin’s elongated figures seem to colorfully play against this terrain to exude emotion. Though painted well after the dissolution of Der Blaue Reiter, this striking tempera on cardboard work reveals that the movement’s ideas continued to impact art beyond its tenure.

The Lasting Influence of Der Blaue Reiter

Unfortunately, the energized approach of Der Blaue Reiter fizzled soon after it sparked. The 1914 outbreak of World War I called many of these artists to the battlefield, and some did not survive the conflict. Franz Marc, for example, died in the Battle of Verdun in 1916. Others like Wassily Kandinsky survived, but the impact of wartime and the scattering of artists in its aftermath diminished the incredible momentum that Der Blaue Reiter once enjoyed.

The ideas of Der Blaue Reiter, however, lived on in the workshops and studios of these artists as well as others across Europe, resulting in an enduring influence of their thinking on later movements. Immediate connections can be found within the realm of Expressionism, often the larger artistic umbrella under which Der Blaue Reiter is placed as it encapsulated a wider network of artists working across Europe who sought a similar goal of using color in their work to evoke visceral emotional responses. The experimental – and at times jarring – color combinations of painters like Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, founder of Die Brücke (“The Bridge) exemplified the extent to which this larger field entered into a visual dialogue with the members of Der Blaue Reiter. Beyond Expressionism, the influence of Der Blaue Reiter’s approach can be found in:


The creation of Russian painter Kazimir Malevich around 1915, Suprematism continued some of Der Blaue Reiter’s focus on the simplicity of painterly compositions to let color and form further inspire a spiritual sense of reflection. This profound connection can be sensed in Malevich’s Black Square, which proved controversial when the artist exhibited it suspended from the corner of the gallery space (a location typically reserved for Russian religious icons).

De Stijl

Similar to Malevich’s Suprematism, artists like Piet Mondrian and his colleagues within the Dutch movement of De Stijl (“The Style”) emphasized the importance of abstraction through streamlined compositions that often relied on primary colors and plain geometry. Mondrian’s Composition in Color A (1917), created the same year as De Stijl’s foundation, reveals this playful yet primary approach that borrowed from Der Blaue Reiter the idea of pushing abstraction of form to new heights.

Abstract Expressionism

As the century progressed, the ideas of Der Blaue Reiter also permeated the approach of the Abstract Expressionists that emerged around 1950. From the increasingly animated techniques and patterns witnessed in the work of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock to the fields of color that defined paintings by Mark Rothko, the incredible innovation seen among these abstract avant-gardes was made possible by the earlier explorations of the artists of Der Blaue Reiter. 

Diving Into Der Blaue Reiter

With an influence that spanned generations and a body of work still beloved by modern art fans around the world, Der Blaue Reiter stands as one of the most significant movements of the era. Though these artists would have had no way of knowing the longevity of their work, the fact that they pushed into uncharted artistic terrain in the pursuit of individual expression helps to showcase their unyielding passion for an art that exudes deep emotional, spiritual, or personal connections.