Born Emil Hansen in Northern Germany, Nolde took the name of the village in which he was born. When he was seventeen, Nolde became an apprentice to a wood carver near Flensburg and also practiced his skills as a draughtsman. He was employed as a wood carver and draughtsman in furniture factories in Munich, Berlin and Karlsruhe from 1888 to 1891. He taught technical draughtsmanship at the Industry and Trade Museum in St. Gallen.
Through hiking tours in Milan, Vienna and Munich Nolde developed a fascination with mountain scenery and he began designing postcards with the mountains as his subjects. The postcards were such a commercial success that Nolde cut his apprenticeship short to move to Munich in 1898. He was not accepted into the Academy in Munich, but he continued to study privately and he traveled to Paris to study at the Académie Julian for one term. He settled in Copenhagen in 1901 and met Ada Vilstrup whom he married in 1902. The couple moved to the island of Alsen in 1903, spending the winter months in Berlin.
In 1906 the artists of “Die Brücke” saw Nolde’s work at an exhibition in Dresden and they invited him to join their association. Many members of the group were intensely interested in printmaking and they frequently circulated exhibitions of prints in woodcuts, etching and lithograph. Nolde took part in their touring exhibition projects for two years and in 1907, he spent several weeks in Dresden. At the end of 1907 Nolde left “Die Brücke” as the differences in age and temperament proved to be too substantial for him.
In 1913, Nolde and his wife accompanied a medical expedition to the South Pacific via Russia and China. He produced a great number of watercolors as a result of this trip. The Noldes moved to Seebull in 1927 and there they maintained a home and a studio. The Third Reich brought defamation for Nolde and many of his paintings were confiscated from museums. His work was a special focus of the Degenerate Art exhibition and from 1941 he was altogether prohibited from painting.