Willi (Wilhelm) Knapp (1901 - 1972)

Birth date: 4/4/1901 Death date: 2/26/1972  
Birth location: St. Wendel, Germany Death location: Weisbaden, Germany  
Media: Graphic Art , Painting , Sculpture Web site:
Comprehensive (file rating) - Major Wisconsin artist file that includes comprehensive documentation on artist's life that can be researched on site at MWA.


Wilhelm “Willi” Knapp
Born 1901 in Hofeld, Saarland (later annexed to Germany)
Died 1972 in Wiesbaden, Germany
Described as a “stormy petrel”, Willi Knapp, sculptor, watercolorist, ceramicist, etcher, was not unfamiliar with controversy. Born Wilhelm Knapp in Hofeld, Saarland, his first teacher was his father, an ornamental blacksmith. Willi, as he came to be known, received a common school education and studied mechanical engineering, philosophy and art history. As a young man, he worked as a mechanic in a railroad workshop, but he yearned to make his living entirely from art. Lacking his family’s support for his career choice, Knapp emigrated to America at age 22 and settled in Chicago where he studied sculpture at the Art Institute until he had a falling out with his instructor and was denied further admission.

A contract for the metal work on the Schroeder Hotel brought him to Milwaukee in 1928. A jovial, talkative man, he came in contact with a number of local architects, including Frank Lloyd Wright. Knapp’s architectural sculpture can still be seen in Milwaukee. For Willi, painting was an avocational sideline, until, with Robert von Neumann’s encouragement, he began to exhibit his watercolors and in 1932 won a gold medal for best painting. A key member of Milwaukee’s emerging regionalist artists, recognized as “the younger and more radical art elements of the Badger city” (Chicago Evening Post, 1931), Knapp was lauded as the only really original spirit in Milwaukee’s art circles and condemned as a “messer in oils”.  Between 1930 and 1933, the prolific Knapp won several prizes in Milwaukee for his work in painting, sculpture and applied art. But he did not make much money.

In 1933, Knapp decided to return to Germany to sell his paintings of the “curious life in America”. After selling all the rest of his work, Knapp left America with 50 canvases. He fully expected to return to America in 2-3 years. However, shortly after his return to Germany, demand for his sculpture grew rapidly. Knapp was commissioned by Adolf Hitler to sculpt two monumental sculptures to flank the entrance of the new city theater being built in Saarbrucken. His German sympathy was widely publicized, making return to the US impossible.

Knapp moved to Wiesbaden, married, and raised two children. He served in the German Army in World War II. Upon his return home, he worked mainly as a designer of lighting fixtures for large public building projects, and continued to do sculpture to the acclaim of an admiring audience.

Selected One-Person Exhibitions

1933 Willi Knapp, Milwaukee Art Institute, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Selected Group Exhibitions

1931 Eleven Milwaukee Artists, Studio Gallery, Chicago, Illinois
1931 Twelve Milwaukee Artists, Cudahy Tower Gallery, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
1932  Wisconsin Art, Increase Robinson Galleries, Chicago, Illinois
1932 Nineteenth Annual Painters and Sculptors Exhibition., Milwaukee Art Institute, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
 1932 Watercolors & Drawings by 17 WI Artists, Layton Art Gallery, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
WI Painters & Sculptors and the Wisconsin Society of Applied Arts Annual Exh., Milwaukee Art Institute,  Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Wisconsin Affiliations

Wisconsin Art Organizations

No art organizations were found.

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