Karel Appel
(Amsterdam 1921 – Zürich 2006)

Karel Appel was a prolific Dutch painter, sculptor and poet, celebrated for his expressive and bold artworks that embodied the essence of post-war European art. His career spanned several decades and left a huge mark on the international art scene.

Appel was born at the Dapperstraat in Amsterdam. From an early age, he knew that he wanted to become a painter, although it was expected of him to work in his father’s hairdressing shop. After several years as a barber, he joined the Rijksacademie (State Academy of Fine Arts) in Amsterdam to study painting from 1942 to 1944. At the academy he formed a profound bond with Corneille and Constant, the artists with whom he would later be part of the CoBrA group.

In 1946, Appel had his first solo exhibition at ‘Het Beerenhuis’ in Groningen and participated  in the exhibition ‘Jonge Schilders’ (Young Painters) at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam later that year. In 1947, Appel travelled with Corneille to Liège and Paris, where he found inspiration in Picasso, Matisse and Dubuffet. By the end of that year, he wrote to Corneille: “Suddenly I’ve found it – from now on I will create more powerful and primitive work, even more powerful than Picasso’s.” This comparison with Picasso illustrates Appel’s ambition as a painter. Few recognized Appel’s potential until a leading art critic wrote a positive article about him, and Ernest van Zuylen, a wealthy collector from Liège, began annually purchasing his art.

In 1948, Appel, Corneille and Constant, along with Anton Rooskens, Theo Wolvecamp and Jan Nieuwenhuys, founded the Dutch Experimental Group. The group’s first publication was a strongly left-wing manifesto largely written by Constant. The manifesto debuted in Paris at the international conference ‘Centre Internationale de Documentation sur l’Art d’Avant-garde’, where it was poorly received.

Appel then founded the CoBrA group with Danish, Dutch and Belgian artists, a name that famously originating from an abbreviation of Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam. Appel drew inspiration from primitive, outsider art and children’s drawings, considering them unspoiled and pure. He painted spontaneously, creating compositions as he worked. While the Experimental Group’s work received a lukewarm reception in the Netherlands, CoBrA was well received by the Danish press.

To their astonishment, CoBrA received an exhibition in 1949 at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. Despite causing a scandal, the exhibition was a success when it was brought to Paris. In 1953 Appel’s work was displayed at the São Paulo Biennale, marking the beginning of his international breakthrough. Subsequently, museums in Paris and New York acclaimed and recognized his talent.

After CoBrA disbanded, Appel painted with thicker, wilder and less controlled strokes, developing his unique style. Starting in 1957, he regularly travelled to New York, where he painted portraits of jazz musicians and his work became progressively more abstract. In 1968, Appel finally had a solo exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. On this occasion, he explained his artistic method to Rudi Fuchs, the director of the Stedelijk Museum at the time. He took time to stare at the canvas before beginning, but once he started, he couldn’t repress his instinctual impulse to layer on more paint. Although he seemed possessed while working, he carefully mixed the exact colour pigments.

When the painting was nearly finished, he slowed down and eventually added single brush-strokes. Appel famously said: “I just mess around a bit. At the moment I am applying thick layers; using brushes, putty knives or my bare hands and I sometimes throw whole pots of paint at the canvas.” (Vrij Nederland 1961, during filming of ‘The Reality of Karel Appel ‘by Jan Vrijman).

A consistent theme throughout Appel’s career was painting animals. His fascination with this theme is evident in how he depicted them in his artworks. In our auction, we have two of Appel’s works portraying animals: the painting Jumping dog and an acrylic on paper titled Cat. Both artworks are vibrant and expressive, capturing their essence with lively colours and dynamic brushstrokes. For Appel, animals represented a reconnection to the primal and instinctual aspects of life. He was drawn to their raw energy, freedom and untamed nature, aspects that resonated deeply with his artistic sensibilities. Animals provided rich inspiration, allowing him to explore themes of vitality, movement and the natural world. He depicted animals in a playful and abstract style, emphasizing their vitality and spirit rather than realistic representation. His use of vivid colours and spontaneous brushwork conveyed a sense of energy and motion, capturing the essence of the animals.

Throughout his career, Appel painted a variety of animals, including birds, fish, cats and other creatures. His passion for animals was not limited to a specific period but remained a consistent theme in his work. Appel’s ability to infuse his animal paintings with emotion and vitality continues to captivate art enthusiasts and collectors worldwide, ensuring that his legacy as an artist passionate about capturing the essence of animals lives on.

By 1990 Appel had four workshops: in New York, Connecticut, Monaco and Tuscany. Karel Appel continued creating artwork until an old age. In 2006, he passed away and was buried at the famous Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris.