The Skaters

Max Beckmann,
The Skaters,
oil on canvas,
The Minneapolis Institute of Art


At first glance this painting seems whimsical and lighthearted. Legs flying in the air, colorful costumes and the clear, crisp landscape set up a cheery ice-skating scene.

But things are seldom as simple as they seem. Look a little closer at the painting. The man on the left has a sinister look on his face. The figures wobble on their skates. The door on the left seems out of place. The artist of this painting, Max Beckmann, was sending a larger message through his work. What could that be?


The Skaters portrays life as an uncertain balancing act.

What words would you use to describe a skilled ice skater? Graceful? Elegant?

The skaters in this painting are far from elegant – they struggle just to keep balanced. Two men unsteadily lift a woman into the air. Her legs fly into the air as she leans on the men for support. The men totter on their skates under her weight, trying to stay upright. A waiter balances trays full of champagne glasses in the middle of the commotion.

The artist emphasizes this unbalanced feeling with diagonal lines. Legs and arms, the trays of champagne glasses, and the skate blades all form slanted lines that make us feel that the group could topple at any moment. The sloping door on the left and the wobbly flagpole on the right echo this instability. Is anything in this world stable?

Why would the artist create such an unsteady scene? Beckmann often included acrobats and other circus performers in his works of art to make a statement about human’s unstable existence. In this work of art, the skaters’ unsteady positions send the same message: life is uncertain.


Max Beckmann’s experiences with the brutality of war inspired his artwork.


Beckmann’s self-portrait reveals the artist’s serious personality.
As a German artist in the early 20th century, Beckmann’s experiences with two world wars influenced his paintings. During World War I, Beckmann witnessed the brutality of war firsthand in his post as a medical orderly. Many of his artworks following the war contained scenes that were dark, violent and cynical.

By the time Beckmann painted *The Skater*s, his subjects had lightened a bit. They still contained elements of pessimism and mystery, as we can see in The Skaters. Even though the subject matter of ice-skaters is lighthearted, the dark lines and unusual configuration of the people create a puzzling scene.

Beckmann enjoyed a prosperous career during the 1920s and early 1930s. His success provided him with the means to travel frequently. For the 1931/32 New Year’s holiday, he vacationed in Garmisch, a popular German resort known for its wintertime activities. Undoubtedly, ice-skating was one of many activities he witnessed during the holiday, and the inspiration for this painting.

Beckmann’s life changed dramatically during World War II. Hitler condemned Beckmann and other German modern artists for creating art that was not realistic, and penalized artists who did not work in the approved Nazi style. A short time later, Beckmann left Berlin and moved to Amsterdam. He never returned to Germany again.


Beckmann repeated the themes seen in The Skaters throughout his career.

Beckmann’s works are frequently scenes of the stage, the circus, the carnival and the children’s games. Beckmann saw these scenes as metaphors for life. At the circus, performers act foolishly for the enjoyment of others. Beckmann felt that in life we are forced to perform for one another as well. How is this attitude reflected in The Skaters? The figures are not in a usual pose. They are performing an acrobatic stunt for us. The fact that the men wear clown costumes, not winter attire, also suggests that this might be a performance.

Beginning in the 1920s, Beckmann created scenes that crowded people into tight spaces. In The Skaters, Beckmann contained the figures with a door on the left and the flagpole on the right. What was he trying to tell us? How does it feel to be in a tight space? Beckmann was sending us a message about feeling suffocated and lacking freedom in life.

Another major theme found in Beckmann’s works is the relationship between men and women. He found this relationship to have areas of conflict, yet realized he couldn’t live without it. How do the men and the woman in The Skaters depend upon each other? How do they put each other at risk?



Related activities

Painting Topsy-Turvy

How do diagonal lines affect our feelings about Max Beckmann’s skaters? Find out by straightening up the scene. Print the image at the top of this page and cut out the three skaters, the side of the hut, and the light pole. Draw a 3-1/2″ x 4-1/2″ box on a piece of paper. Rearrange the figures in the box so that the two men are standing straight and the hut and pole are vertical. (You will need to trim the left side of the hut.) Compare your version with the original. How has the mood changed? Now transfer the pieces to a larger sheet of paper to give the figures more space. Draw in other things that might be going around the skaters. Will your scene be topsy turvy or orderly? How will you show that? How do your feelings about the skaters change when there is more space around them?

Postcard Home

Max Beckmann painted The Skaters shortly after a holiday at a winter resort, which probably inspired this scene. From what you see in this picture, write a five sentence postcard Beckmann might have sent to a friend back home. Compare your postcard message with someone else’s. Did you both pick up on the same details in the picture? Did you notice anything new in the picture after reading the other postcard message?

What Did the Weatherperson Say That Day?

Examine the painting for clues about weather conditions in this scene. How many different details can you find that give you that information? Make a list of those details and then write a weather forecast for that day, including temperature, cloud cover, precipitation, wind levels, and advice about other suitable activities. Then imagine a different set of weather conditions on another day. Draw a picture of the same place on the day you imagined. Which details of the picture would change? Which would remain the same?

Aspects of Winter

Artists can draw out different moods and feelings even when they depict the same subject. Search Mia’s website for a few other artworks that show winter. Compare the examples of winter scenes and add your own text to explain what mood the artist has created. What do you see in each picture that helps establish the mood? (Think about how Beckmann played with diagonal lines and the space around figures to create the mood of The Skaters.) Which picture best expresses your favorite aspect of winter? Explain what you see in the picture that reminds you of your own experiences.