Photo © President and Fellows of Harvard College
Gallery Text

In the early 1930s, in the face of escalating threats by nationalist critics to practitioners of the German avant-garde, Beckmann increasingly turned to allegorical and mythical subjects and began to work in an ambitious triptych format. The triptych, or painting in three parts, references the tradition of religious painting in the West, but also, as a result of its sheer size, makes a claim for public recognition. Painted during World War II while Beckmann was in exile in Amsterdam, Actors depicts a theater rehearsal. The construction of space challenges illusionistic perspective, as evident in the disjointed stage occupied both above and below, and jolts viewers out of passive spectatorship. For Beckmann, theater was a direct metaphor for existence in wartime. Several figures here are often identified as the artist’s fellow émigrés, and the self-sacrificing king at center as Beckmann in younger years. Tired of the “lousy, uncreative efforts” of the “unknown stage directors” orchestrating wailing sirens or bombing campaigns, Beckmann designed his own “stage sets” of complex, layered meanings.

Identification and Creation
Object Number
Max Beckmann, German (Leipzig, Germany 1884 - 1950 New York, N.Y., USA)
Other Titles
Original Language Title: Schauspieler
Former Title: The Actors
Work Type
Persistent Link
Physical Descriptions
Oil on canvas
left panel: 199.4 x 83.7 cm (78 1/2 x 32 15/16 in.)
center panel: 199.4 × 150 cm (78 1/2 × 59 1/16 in.)
right panel: 199.4 × 83.7 cm (78 1/2 × 32 15/16 in.)
overall framed: 207.3 × 341.9 × 6.4 cm (81 5/8 × 134 5/8 × 2 1/2 in.)
Inscriptions and Marks
  • Signed: Beckmann A 42
[Buchholz Gallery, New York, New York (1946-47)], sold; to Lois Orswell, Pomfret Center, Connecticut, (1947-1955), gift; to Fogg Art Museum, 1955.
Acquisition and Rights
Credit Line
Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Gift of Lois Orswell
© Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn
Accession Year
Object Number
Modern and Contemporary Art
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Publication History

The Actors by Beckmann, exh. cat., Buchholz Gallery (New York, NY, 1946), Cat. No. 3, ill.

Max Beckmann Retrospective Exhibition, exh. cat., City Art Museum of St. Louis (St. Louis, MO, 1948), no. 30, repr. pp. 68-69; checklist p. 96

Max Beckmann, Tagebücher 1940-1950, A. Langen-G. Müller (Munich, Germany, 1955), see May 1941-July 1942

Charles Scott Chetham, [Unidentified article], Fogg Art Museum Annual Report 1955-1956, Fogg Art Museum (Cambridge, MA, 1956), pps. 54, 62-64, reproduced in b/w p. 55

Stephan Lackner, Max Beckmann 1884-1950 Die Neun Triptychen, Im Safari-Verlag (Berlin, Germany, 1965), pps. 16-19, reproduced in color p. 17

Paintings, Drawings, and Sculpture from the Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, exh. cat., Yale University Art Gallery (New Haven, 1967), n.p.

Paintings, Sculpture and Drawings from the Fogg Art Museum, exh. cat., Albright-Knox Art Gallery (Buffalo, NY, 1967), cat.. 41

Charles S. Kessler, Max Beckmann's Triptychs, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA, 1970), pps. 51-62, 99, 106; reproduced in color facing p. 51

Charles Werner Haxthausen, "The Busch-Reisinger Museum, Harvard: the Germanic Tradition", Apollo (May 1978), vol. 107, no. 195, pp. 403-413, p. 410, repr. p. 409 as fig. 6 [all three parts of triptych]

Charles Werner Haxthausen, The Busch-Reisinger Museum, Harvard University, Abbeville Press (New York, NY, 1980), p. 20, repr.

William Feaver, "Max Beckmann's Theatre of Disguises and Burlesques", Art News (March 1981), reproduced in b/w, p. 147

Max Beckmann: The Triptychs, exh. cat., Whitechapel Art Gallery (London, England, 1981), reproduced in color opposite p. 46 and color detail p. 17; text, p. 17-18

Laszlo Glozer, Westkunst: Zeitgenössische Kunst seit 1939, exh. cat., DuMont (Cologne, Germany, 1981), reproduced in b/w no. 36, p. 343

Charles Werner Haxthausen, ed., Deutsche Kunst des 20. jahrhunderts aus dem Busch-Reisinger Museum, Harvard University (Cambridge, MA, 1983), reproduced in b/w XI 8, p. 219

Carla Hoffmann-Schulz and Judith C. Weitz, ed., Max Beckmann: Retrospective, exh. cat., St. Louis Art Museum and Prestel-Verlag (St. Louis, MO and Munich, Germany, 1984), pp. 43, 125, 463, fig. 20, detail, fig. 8, ill. (b/w)

Caroline A. Jones, Modern Art at Harvard: The Formation of the Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Collections of the Harvard University Art Museums (New York, NY and Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Art Museums and Abbeville Press, 1985). With an essay by John Coolidge and a preface by John M. Rosenfield. To accompany the inaugural exhibition at the Sackler Museum, Oct 21 1985 - Jan 5 1986, reproduced in color fig. 97, p. 102

Kristin A. Mortimer and William G. Klingelhofer, Harvard University Art Museums: A Guide to the Collections, Harvard University Art Museums and Abbeville Press (Cambridge and New York, 1986), no. 382, p. 319, repr. in b/w

Von Heinz Jatho, Max Beckmann: Schauspieler-Triptychon, Insel Verlag (Baden-Baden, 1989), Fold-out color ill. in back

Max Beckmann in Exile, exh. cat., Guggenheim Museum Publications (New York, NY, 1996), detail on cover; central panel p. 63; full repro. cat. no. 11; credits, p. 143.

Masterpieces of world art : Fogg Art Museum, Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Busch-Reisinger Museum, 1997

Reinhard Spieler, Max Beckmann: Bildwelt und Weltbilt in den Triptychen, DuMont Buchverlag (Cologne, Germany, 1998), pp. 26-27, ill. (color)

Pia Gottschaller, "Max Beckmann: His Painting Materials and Technique" (thesis (certificate in conservation), Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, 1998), Unpublished, pp. 1-33 passim

Marjorie B. Cohn and Sarah Kianovsky, Lois Orswell, David Smith, and Modern Art, exh. cat., Harvard University Art Museums (Cambridge, MA, 2002), cat. no. 5, fig. 20; pp. 48-49 (repr. color), 306, 374

Sean Rainbird, ed., Max Beckmann, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York, 2003), pp. 142, 200-201, cat. no. 107, ill. (color)

Stephen Diederich and Paola Malavassi, ed., Max Beckmann, Fernand Léger: Unerwartete Begegnungen, Museum Ludwig and DuMont Literatur und Kunst Verlag (Cologne, 2005), p. 113

Beatrice von Bormann, Max Beckmann in Amsterdam 1937-1947, exh. cat., Van Gogh Museum (Amsterdam, 2007), pp. 53, 56

Pinakothek der Moderne, ed., Max Beckmann: Exile in Amsterdam, exh. cat., Hatje Cantz Verlag (Munich, 2007), pp. 48, 51-52, 95, 100, 186-189, fig. 12, ill. (color)

Deborah Schultz and Edward Timms, Politics and Pictorial Narrative in the Nazi Period: Autobiographical motifs in the paintings of Felix Nussbaum, Taylor and Francis Group (2008), p. 245, fig. 21

Peter Chametzky, Objects as History in Twentieth Century German Art: Beckmann to Beuys, University of California Press (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London, 2010), pp. 26-27, ill. (black and white)

Susanne Petri and Hans-Werner Schmidt, Max Beckmann: Von Angesicht zu Angesicht, exh. cat., Hatje Cantz and Museum der bildenden Kunste Leipzig (Leipzig, Germany, 2011), pp. 38-41, 43, 45-46, 48, 53, ill. (color)

"Für Max Beckmann war die Welt ein Theater", website, 2017, lead image, ill. (color)

Lynette Roth, Max Beckmann: The World as a Stage, exh. cat., ed. Kunsthalle Bremen and Museum Barberini, Prestel (Munich, London, New York, 2017), pp. 74-75, 109, 122-123, 211, fig. 8 (cat. 31), ill. (color)

Exhibition History

The Actors by Beckmann, Buchholz Gallery, 11/19/1946 - 12/07/1946

20th Century Abstract Painting and Sculpture, Rhode Island School of Design Museum, Providence, 04/16/1947 - 05/18/1947

Max Beckmann Retrospective Exhibition, City Art Museum of St. Louis, St. Louis, 05/01/1948 - 05/31/1948; Busch-Reisinger Museum, 12/06/1948 - 01/07/1949

Max Beckmann Exhibition, Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, 02/23/1956 - 05/19/1956

Max Beckmann, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Boston, 10/01/1964 - 11/15/1964; Museum of Modern Art, New York, New York, 12/14/1964 - 01/31/1965; The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, 03/12/1965 - 04/11/1965; Kunstverein Hamburg, Hamburg, 05/10/1965 - 07/04/1965; Kunstverein Frankfurt, Frankfurt, 07/15/1965 - 09/09/1965; Tate Britain, London, 09/25/1965 - 11/08/1965

Paintings, Sculpture and Drawings from the Fogg Art Museum, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, 05/08/1967 - 06/11/1967

Paintings, Drawings, Sculpture from the Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, 10/12/1967 - 12/03/1967

Max Beckmann 1884-1950: The Triptychs, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, 11/11/1980 - 12/31/1980; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, 01/01/1981 - 02/28/1981; Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt, 04/15/1981 - 06/21/1981

Beckmann Triptych, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, 11/11/1980 - 12/31/1980

Contemporary Art since 1939, Museum of the City of Cologne, Cologne, 05/30/1981 - 08/16/1981

Modern Art at Harvard, Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, 10/21/1985 - 01/05/1986

Hinter der Buhne (Backstage): Max Beckmann 1950, Museum der bildenden Künste, Leipzig, 07/20/1990 - 09/19/1990; Stadtische Galerie im Stadelschen Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt, 10/10/1990 - 01/13/1991

Max Beckmann in Exile, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 10/09/1996 - 01/15/1997

Max Beckmann, Museum of Modern Art, New York, New York, 06/25/2003 - 09/30/2003

Lois Orswell, David Smith, and Modern Art, Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, 09/21/2002 - 02/16/2003

Max Beckmann in Amsterdam, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, 04/06/2007 - 08/19/2007; Pinakothek der Moderne, Munchen, 09/13/2007 - 01/27/2008

32Q: 1330 Mid-Century Figurative, Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, 11/16/2014 - 08/11/2017; Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, 07/26/2018 - 07/13/2021

Max Beckmann: The World as a Stage, Kunsthalle Bremen, Bremen, 09/30/2017 - 02/04/2018; Museum Barberini, Potsdam, 02/23/2018 - 06/10/2018

Subjects and Contexts

Collection Highlights

This record has been reviewed by the curatorial staff but may be incomplete. Our records are frequently revised and enhanced. For more information please contact the Division of Modern and Contemporary Art at