Born in 1867, Käthe Schmidt was the fifth child of Karl Schmidt, a public works contractor, socialist and Freemason, and Katharina Rupp. She had an older brother Conrad who was an economist, journalist and member of the SPD. She suffered the premature death of her brother Benjamin.
She spent her childhood and adolescence in Königsberg, East Prussia, being educated by her maternal grandfather. Her father encouraged her to attend art classes because of her aptitude for drawing. From 1881 onwards, the 14-year-old Käthe learned her art from the painter Gustav Naujok and the copper engraver Rudolf Mauer.
In 1885 she left Königsberg for Berlin, where she attended the School of Drawing and Painting and met Gerhart Hauptmann and Arno Holz. In 1886, Käthe moved to Munich, where she completed her training with Professor Ludwig von Herterich.
Back in Königsberg in 1890, the 24-year-old Käthe Schmidt married a 28-year-old doctor, Dr. Karl Kollwitz, a year later. The couple moved to Berlin. In 1892 their first son, Hans, was born. Four years later, Käthe Kollwitz gave birth to a second son, Peter.
From 1898 to 1903, Käthe Kollwitz taught at the Berlin Women's Art School. After a series of engravings, the artist turned to sculpture, inspired by the famous sculptor Ernst Barlach.
At the outbreak of the First World War, her youngest son Peter, aged 18, was killed in action. This tragedy led Käthe Kollwitz to turn to pacifism and socialism. In 1919, 52-year-old Käthe Kollwitz became the first woman to become a member of the Berlin Academy of Arts. She dedicated a wood sculpture to Karl Liebknecht, the murdered co-founder of the German Communist Party (KPD).
Käthe Kollwitz mentions in her diary that the task of art is to represent the social conditions of the proletariat. She took part in the attempt to build a unity of workers fighting against Nazism and co-signed an appeal in June 1932 for unity of action between the KPD and the SPD.
When the Nazis came to power in 1933, Käthe Kollwitz was forced to resign from her position at the Prussian Academy of Arts and from her position as head of the graphic design class. She was forbidden to exhibit her work, although some of her paintings were used by the Nazis for propaganda purposes. The Kollwitzs were threatened with deportation, but their fame protected them.
In early 1940 her husband, who had been blind for several years, died at the age of 77. Berlin was bombed by the Allied air force and Käthe moved first to Nordhausen and then to Moritzburg, near Dresden. The artist died there in April 1945, only two weeks before the end of the war in Europe.