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Adolf Hitler, leader of the Nazi party in Germany in the years leading up to and during World War II, was also a painter. He produced hundreds of works and sold his paintings and postcards to try to earn a living during his Vienna years (1908–1913). However, he was not successful. A number of his paintings were recovered after World War II and have sold at auction for tens of thousands of dollars. Others were seized by the U.S. Army and are still held by the U.S. government.
In his autobiography Mein Kampf, Hitler described how, in his youth, he wanted to become a professional artist, but his aspirations were ruined because he failed the entrance exam of the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna. Hitler was rejected twice by the institute, once in 1907 and again in 1908; the institute considered that he had more talent in architecture than in painting. One of the instructors, sympathetic to his situation and believing he had some talent, suggested that he apply to Academies School of Architecture. However, that would have required returning to secondary school from which he had dropped out and which he was unwilling to do.
Later, when he used to tint and peddle postcards featuring scenes of Vienna, Hitler frequented the artists' cafes in Munich in the unfulfilled hope that established artists might help him with his ambition to paint professionally.
According to a conversation before the outbreak of World War II in August 1939, published in the Blue Book, Hitler told British ambassador Nevile Henderson, "I am an artist and not a politician. Once the Polish question is settled, I want to end my life as an artist."
From 1908 to 1913, Hitler tinted postcards and painted houses for a living. He painted his first self-portrait in 1910 at the age of 21. This painting, along with twelve other paintings by Hitler, was discovered by Company Sergeant Major Willie J. McKenna in 1945 in Essen, Germany.
Samuel Morgenstern, an Austrian businessman and a business partner of the young Hitler in his Vienna period, bought many of the young Hitler's paintings. According to Morgenstern, Hitler came to him for the first time in the beginning of the 1910s, either in 1911 or in 1912. When Hitler came to Morgenstern's glazier store for the first time, he offered Morgenstern three of his paintings. Morgenstern kept a database of his clientele, through which it had been possible to locate the buyers of young Hitler's paintings. It is found that the majority of the buyers were Jewish. An important client of Morgenstern, a lawyer by the name of Josef Feingold, bought a series of paintings by Hitler depicting old Vienna.
When Hitler served in World War I at the age of 25 in 1914, he carried his paints with him to the front and spent his idle hours doing art. The works he painted during this period were among his last before he became a politician/dictator. The themes of his wartime painting included farmers' houses, the dressing-station, etc.
A number of Hitler's paintings were seized by the U.S. Army at the end of World War II. They were taken to the United States with other captured materials and are still held by the U.S. government, which has declined to allow them to be exhibited. Other paintings were kept by private individuals. In the 2000s, a number of these works began to be sold at auction. In 2009 auction house Mullock's of Shropshire sold 15 of Hitler’s paintings for a total of $120,000, while Ludlow’s of Shropshire sold 13 works for over €100,000. In a 2012 auction in Slovakia, an individual painting fetched $42,300.
According to the weekly news magazine LIFE, which featured Hitler and his paintings in 1936 and 1939, Hitler painted hundreds of works. Some thought Hitler's painting skill was poor; for example because he rarely painted people, the cause of which was speculated by LIFE to be either his unwillingness or lack of skill. His paintings are preoccupied with architecture such as public places, buildings, and farmhouses. Others, however, concluded he "had a modicum of talent." One modern art critic was asked to review some of his paintings without being told who painted them and judged them "quite good". The different style in which he drew human figures, however, the critic said, represented a profound disinterest in people.