Karl Schmidt was born in 1884 in Rottluff near Chemnitz, where he met Erich Heckel in grammar school in 1902. Schmidt began studying architecture at the Polytechnical University of Dresden in 1905. During the same year Schmidt, along with Heckel, Fritz Bleyl and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, founded the artist’s association, “Brücke”. From then on Schmidt added to his surname the place of his birth and called himself, Schmidt-Rottluff. He abandoned his courses in 1906 and began devoting himself entirely to painting.
From 1907 to 1912, Schmidt- Rottluff spent his summers in Dangast, just north of the town of Oldenburg, occasionally accompanied by Heckel. He produced a large number of his paintings, watercolors and graphic works in the tranquil seclusion of the coastal region of Dangast. In 1911 he moved to Berlin and came into contact with current tendencies of the international avant-garde. After 1912, Futurism, Cubism and African tribal art had a sizable influence on his work. In 1912 he participated in the “Sonderbund Ausstellung” in Cologne and after the disbanding of the “Brücke” in 1913, he had developed a monumental artistic vocabulary.
Schmidt-Rottluff spent the summer of 1914 in Hohwacht on the coast of Holstein and in 1915 he was drafted for military service in Russia and Lithuania where he produced only woodcuts and wooden sculptures. He returned to Berlin in 1918 and married Emy Frisch. Schmidt-Rottluff's late-Expressionist work of the 1920s was made up of mostly watercolors and paintings. He continued to spend his summers on the Baltic Coast through the early 1930s, also traveling to Paris, Dalmatia and Ticino.
Schmidt-Rottluff became a member of the Prussian Academy in 1931 and in 1936 he was defamed as a “degenerate” artist and was prohibited from exhibiting and in 1941, from painting at all. In 1943 his Berlin studio was bombed and he chose to live in exile in Rumbke at the Leba-Lake in Pomerania, later returning to Rottluff. By 1947 his artistic career had been renewed and he was asked to take a position as a Professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Berlin. Schmidt-Rottluff died at the age of 92 in Berlin and his bequest came to the “Brücke” as the “Karl and Emy Schmidt-Rottluff Foundation”.