Charlotte Salomon for beginners


Who was Charlotte Salomon?

Charlotte Salomon was born in Berlin in 1917. She grew up in a cultured milieu, the only daughter of a Jewish surgeon and nurse who had met during the First World War.

At the age of nine, her mother suddenly died. Of influenza, she was told. Four years later, her father married again, with a famous singer.

Tragic family history

After Kristallnacht, when Nazis set fire to synagogues, ransacked Jewish shops, companies and schools, and murdered Jews, Charlotte’s father sent her to stay with her grandparents, who had sought refuge in the safety of southern France.

While there, her grandmother took her own life. Her grandfather explained that several members of the family had committed suicide. In addition to her aunt, her own mother had also ended her life in the same way.

To process this and in an effort not to let it drive her insane, Charlotte Salomon decided to do something ‘amazingly special’.

What is Charlotte Salomon famous for?

She withdrew to her room and there she painted an endless series of gouaches (opaque watercolours). Using intense colours, she portrayed her family’s tragic history. Two years later, with over eight hundred gouaches complete, the story was told. She called the work Life? or Theatre?

Life? or Theatre? is crafted as a musical theatre show, a three-part song-play, Salomon called it. There are characters – who closely resemble the people in her own world, although subtly different – acts, scenes, monologues, dialogues and references to music.

Charlotte (2022) an animation film with Keira Knightley as Charlotte Salomon

Song-play in three parts

Part 1: Prologue

Salomon describes her early years in Berlin until 1937. Her mother takes her own life (although Salomon is told that she died of influenza), she goes to high school, her father marries a famous opera singer, the Nazis take power and she enrols at art college.

Part 2: Story

The story centres on Salomon’s love for the voice teacher Alfred Wolfsohn (called Amadeus Daberlohn in the work), engaged to coach her stepmother. He is 21 years older than Salomon and in Life? or Theatre? he becomes involved both with both Salomon and her stepmother.

Part 3: Epilogue

The work draws to a close in 1939 to 1942. Salomon is in southern France. The Second World War begins, grandmother takes her own life and Salomon begins work on Life? or Theatre?

Useful to know

Want to know more about Charlotte Salomon? Her complete work has been in the museum’s care since 1971. Here’s some information to help you on your way.

Since the Life? or Theatre? gouaches are extremely fragile, the work is not on permanent display. Selections of gouaches are presented in the Jewish Museum in successive temporary exhibits, six at a time.

The complete work is available online.

View Life? or Theatre?

We have a huge amount of information about Charlotte Salomon. From family photos and letters to biographies, reference books and video interviews. These are available at our knowledge and resource centre.

The characters in Life? or Theatre? are exaggerated versions of people in Charlotte Salomon’s own life. She calls them names that relate in some way to their personality and subjects them to merciless scrutiny. The distinction between fact and fiction is not always clear.

View the characters.

Charlotte Salomon was captured by the Gestapo on 24 September 1943 together with her husband Alexander Nagler. They had been married for three months. Salomon was murdered immediately after arriving in Auschwitz on 10 October 1943. Nagler was put to work and died of exhaustion on 1 January 1944.

Read her biography.