Born in 1891 in Thuringia, Germany, Dix was the son of a railway worker. He apprenticed with a decorative painter for four years before studying at the Dresden School of Arts and Crafts. After serving in World War I, Dix studied at the art academies of Dresden and Düsseldorf. He worked in a variety of styles throughout his career, from Expressionism to Dada, but his most celebrated artistic mode was the deadpan, matter-of-fact realism known as Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) seen in "The Businessman Max Roesberg, Dresden." Dix was one of the leaders of this movement, a mode of painting that reacted against all that was personal and spiritual in Expressionism while still maintaining many expressionistic techniques. Along with such artists as George Grosz and Christian Schaad, he turned to a hyper-realistic treatment of contemporary themes that was influenced by the work of German Old Masters. Their work depicted people and places with such clinical objectivity that their pictures allow us to reconstruct the fashions, coiffures, interior furnishings, and social life of Germany during the 1920s and 1930s.
As in "The Businessman Max Roesberg, Dresden," Dix's celebrated Neue Sachlichkeit portraits capture, with just a few poignant details, the individuality of his sitters, who included prominent lawyers, businessmen, and art dealers, as well as poets, prostitutes, and performers. Never flattering, these portraits are often quite disquieting and sinister, as they magnify the sitter's weaknesses or foibles. The rather benign character of this portrait might be due to the fact that it was a commissioned work. Roesberg, a collector of the works of young Dresden artists, owned several pictures by Dix.
Using his customary three-quarter view, Dix locates Roesberg in his office, which is soberly decorated in greens and browns, the colors of commerce and money. Telling details anchor the sitter firmly in his business day: the wall clock, the daily tear-off calendar, the mail-order catalog that he holds, and the stamped letter to Otto Dix on his blotter. The sleek black and silver telephone brings a whiff of cosmopolitan flavor into this small-town office. Fastidiously groomed, Roesberg, sporting a clipped mustache and cropped salt-and-pepper hair, exudes alertness and cunning, but seems without malice.
From 1927 until 1933, Dix taught at the Dresden Academy, when he was dismissed without notice by the Nazis, presumably because of his reputation as a critic of war. Many of his works were confiscated and burned while others were defamed at the 1937 exhibition, "Entartete Kunst" (Degenerate Art). After World War II, Dix's art became more expressionistic and his subjects more religious. The realistic portraits he had produced in the 1920s were increasingly considered "unmodern," and it was not until the mid-1960s, shortly before his death, that Dix's Neue Sachlichkeit work was reappraised and admired.