Kurt Werth was born September 21, 1896 in Leipzig, Germany, to Emma Helbig and Rudolph Werth, a salesman. As a child he particularly loved wintertime and the outdoor pursuits of sledding, skating, and building snow fortresses. An early interest in drawing prompted a school teacher to advise his mother to supply him with sketch books, in which he drew from memory the scenes observed on his way to school.
Despite his parents' conviction that artists lived in misery, Werth entered the State Academy for the Graphic Arts in Leipzig in 1913 and studied there for two years. His teacher, O. R. Bossert, had studied under painter Paul Cézanne and his strict instruction of Cézanne's theories opened a new world for Werth.
The First World War brought an abrupt end to Werth's studies at the academy when he was drafted into the army in 1915. With sketchbooks in his knapsack, Werth continued drawing throughout the war. Unfortunately, Werth sent his wartime sketchbooks to a girlfriend whom he never saw again, and so the pictorial record of his war years was lost forever.
After the war Werth returned for two more years of study at the State Academy. In 1921 he went to Munich and illustrated limited edition books, including Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida, and books by Euripedes, Pushkin, Kipling, and the German authors Wasserman and Kleist.
When the market for limited edition books fell off Werth had to find other sources of income. In 1924 he began drawing satirical cartoons for the Munich magazine The Jugend, and the Swiss magazine Nebelspalter.
In 1926 Kurt Werth married Margaret Scheer, an actress who had first attracted his attention when he saw her in George Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan the year before. The couple moved to Berlin where there were greater opportunities in publishing and they could be in the company of other artists. Werth went to work as a satirical cartoonist for a number of magazines including the Berliner Tageblatt, Querschnitt, and Simplicissimus. He also contributed to anti-Nazi publications but with Hitler's increasing power the magazines folded and this work was abandoned. Werth turned to designing book covers, murals and other work "in order not to betray but to live."
Under the Nazi regime Margaret Werth, who was Jewish, was not allowed to work. The ominous political climate convinced the Werths that they had to leave Germany and in 1939 they used their savings to immigrate to the United States. After a "terrifying" first year, Werth found employment as a freelance illustrator for The New York Times Magazine.
When the United States became involved in World War II, Werth began drawing cartoons for a number of the new magazines that had appeared on the political scene: Common Sense, Free World, The New Republic, and Tomorrow, as well as Harper's.
When most of these publications disappeared with the war's conclusion Werth returned to book publishing, illustrating textbooks for Oxford University Press and other publishing houses. One of his first attempts at illustrating a picture book for children, Rosalys Hall's The Merry Miller, received much favorable notice and opened the door to requests from other authors and publishers.
Werth stated, "As a German I was certainly influenced by the tradition of exact and thorough training in drawing. This goes back to Dürer and even farther." He attempted to illustrate children's books in a "modern style." "Books have to be illustrated in our times. They should show the style of our times. Not all of them do it."
Kurt Werth died in New York City on August 25, 1983.
Edith Ballinger Price Elizabeth
Orton Jones Virginia
Kurt Werth Gallery Children's Literature Page Special Collections