Karl Wilhelm Diefenbach. 1880s free love messiah, naturist, pacifist, vegetarian, sun worshipper and unique symbolist painter.

Karl Wilhelm Diefenbach (1851-1913)
Self Portrait as Christ (1892)

Regarded as the “forefather of alternative movements” Diefenbach (1851-1913) took to wearing a caftan and sandals. In the 1880s. As often, he wore nothing at all. He gave up meat, alcohol and tobacco and preached free love, pacifism and sun worship.  He was rejected from Munich’s venerable Pinakothek museum in 1884 because his messianic robes were considered an “irreconcilable contradiction” to the old institution’s standards. His public preaching, advocating radical lifestyle reforms, were banned by police.

So enamored was he of sunlight, he named his children after it; Helios (the sun god), Stella (the star) and Lucidus (the shining one) and allowed them to sun-bathe naked. Another of the many infringements that confused polite German society and brought him into conflict with its authorities.

Diefenbach flouted social conventions; he considered marriage a “compulsory institute”, “degrading and shameful”, a “legitimate form of fornication”. The church was the “Satan institute”, and he rejected the “clothing epidemic” as a “monkey masquerade” that sickens the body. He practiced what he preached too, a regular sight, walking barefoot through Munich in his robes.

In 1892 he and his followers left for Austria where, of course, they founded Humanitas, a utopian commune outside Vienna. Diefenbach’s messianic tendencies were given free rein but by the time the century closed he was bankrupt. He retired to Capri, an island in Italy’s Bay of Naples, where he died in 1913.

Apparition (ca.1890)

As well as being an early (if not the earliest) proto-hippy, Diefenbach was also a painter of considerable, if bizarrely directed, power. His works ranged from a portrait of Wagner for Bavarian King Ludwig II to these large-scale Symbolist canvasses of haunting landscapes and elemental turmoil, Sphinxes in the sea and young women in various connection and communion with the elements. His brand of Symbolism was, like his persona, entirely independent of anyone else’s.

Satisfyingly strange.

The Fairy Dance (1895)
Head of a Chamois (1895)
Seagull in Reeds (1899)
Towards the Rescue (date unknown)
Thou Shalt Not Kill (1902)
Girl Holding A Snake – Innocence (1900)
Seagulls in a stormy bay (unknown date)
A Question to the Stars (1898)
A boy playing the violin (date unknown)
Dying Deer (date unknown)
Seagull in front of the cliffs of Capri (1901)
Per aspera ad astra (1892)

Per aspera ad astra is Latin,
meaning “through hardships to the stars”
or “our aspirations take us to the stars”.

ad astra = “to the stars”
Diefenbach with his son Helios (the sun god)
Photo (ca.1885) by Georg Pettendorfer.
Munich City Museum
Diefenbach in front of his house in Capri (bef. 1913)
Self Portrait (1895)


Sorrento-Amalfi coast road (1911)
Capri (ca.1911)
Sphinx by the sea (1900)
Capri (1911)
Sphinx with Undine (1902)
Capri landscape (unknown date)

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