The Artist Raphael Kirchner

Vienna-born artist Raphael Kirchner was born in 1876. Influenced by Aubrey Beardsley’s Art Nouveau style, Kirchner has often been compared to the artist Alphonse Mucha who also primarily painted women. But while Mucha went on to focus on poster art, Kirchner designed postcards during what has been dubbed “The Golden Age of Postcards.” Women in Kirchner designs were usually garbed scantily (though elegantly) and shown sitting at their vanities or lounging on beds. Some are simply smelling flowers or playing an instrument like a harp.

Not much is known about Kirchner’s private life. While in Vienna, he painted portraits for wealthy Viennese clients. He later moved to Paris (around 1900) where he illustrated for the magazine La Vie Parisienne. This popular French magazine famously featured other well-known artists like Georges Barbier and Georges Leonnec. The magazine became infamous for its risqué, yet tasteful illustrations of women. Kirchner’s illustrations for the magazine led to his career designing more than one thousand illustrated postcards featuring mostly women.

Most of Kirchner’s women are based on his wife Nina who modeled for him. Many of Kirchner’s designs demonstrated a strong Japanese influence as best evidenced by his Geisha series of illustrations. While in Paris Kirchner continued to do portrait work and illustrate for other magazines. Kirchner’s illustrations of Paris life became very popular—especially as he portrayed its sensual side in bars and fashionable bedrooms. His depictions of women, while erotic, are also exquisitely lovely. Like Mucha, Kirchner portrayed women as essentially beautiful—sometimes ethereally so.

Kirchner moved to the United States around 1914. His postcards became particularly sought after during WWI by soldiers on both sides of the war. Art historians credit Kirchner’s postcards as revealing the first pin up girls. Soldiers collected Kirchner’s postcard beauties and hung them in the trenches. Kirchner’s war postcards were less draughtsmanlike than his earlier designs and also more directly sensual. These erotic postcards were soldiers’ favorites and their popularity during these war years influenced the work of later pin up artists. While in New York, Kirchner also worked as a theatre costume designer as well as a portrait artist.

Kirchner died in 1917. His wife and main model Nina attempted suicide after his death. Subsequent accounts of her life suggest she went mad with excessive drug use. Kirchner portrayed his wife so often that it would be impossible to ignore their artist and muse-like relationship. His portrayals of Nina suggest enchantment, beauty, and certainly love. Kirchner’s postcards are among the most highly collectable. His rarest designs are extremely valuable and continue to fetch large sums at auction.