Käthe Kollwitz and the Face of Grief

Käthe Kollwitz, detail from Woman with Dead Child (1903), etching, drypoint, sandpaper and soft-ground on paper, 40.3 × 47 cm. Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts. 2015.15.

Käthe Kollwitz, detail from Woman with Dead Child (1903), etching, drypoint, sandpaper and soft-ground on paper, 40.3 × 47 cm. Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts. 2015.15.

I have long been drawn to the large-scale intaglio print Woman with Dead Child (1903) by Käthe Kollwitz, a trenchant image of grief and loss. But the animal-like nature of the woman’s face, virtually unique in Kollwitz’s oeuvre, has always puzzled me. In the scholarly literature on the work this feature is often mentioned but left unexplored.

The print is a technical and procedural tour de force and its many states have been detailed by Alexandra von dem Knesebeck. In some impressions Kollwitz hand-colored elements and in others she combined intaglio and lithography.1 In addition to the main etched lines, she added soft-ground with a ribbed laid paper she described as “Ziegler’s transfer paper,” and employed sandpaper to roughen up the surface of the plate. As with many of her intaglios from this period, this extensive reworking makes it a rewarding technical puzzle for the print geeks among us.

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  1. The state depicted here is the eighth and final one—the first numbered edition, printed by Otto Felsing and published in 1918 by Emil Richter. For a full explanation of her intaglio techniques and descriptions of each state, see: Alexandra von dem Knesebeck, Käthe Kollwitz: Werkverzeichnis der Graphik (Bern: Kornfeld, 2002), 17–19 and 252–257. The late James Hofmaier translated the catalogue raisonné into English on a separate CD-ROM. []