Born in Berlin and maturing in Paris with his family and engineer father, Karl Zerbe returned to Frankfort at eleven. World War I events, including his father’s death, affected his adolescence. Turning briefly to chemistry, by 1920, he enrolled in Munich’s Debschitz School. Recognition came with a solo show in Berlin’s Gurlitt Galley and a fellowship allowing Italian travels.
Back in Germany, Zerbe explored contemporary art movements, with Berlin’s National Gallery acquiring his work. During The Weimar Republic, Zerbe visited France and the United States and enjoyed one-person exhibits at Harvard University’s Germanic Museum and New York’s Sterner Gallery. Settling in the Boston area, he lamented the 1937 Nazi destruction of his “degenerate” work but also celebrated becoming Head of the Painting Department, School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Soon, Zerbe was known as mentor to Boston Expressionists. Using encaustic as a wax medium resulted in countless national exhibits. Also important was his introducing colleagues like Max Beckman and Oscar Kokoschka to students. His cityscapes, still lifes, and portraits caused historian J. W. Janson to name him “citizen of the world”.
In 1955, Zerbe moved to Tallahassee, Florida and taught at Florida State University. Always an activist, he was elected President of Artists Equity Association. This collegial spirit influenced later works defined by racial and environmental harmony. Reason for one critic to pronounce Karl Zerbe: “High Priest…of Contemporary Art.”