Born in 1904 into a well-to-do German Jewish family, Felix Nussbaum began his professional art career in the 1920s and occasionally painted Jewish themes. When Hitler came to power in 1933, Nussbaum was attending the Berlin Academy of the Arts in Rome, which soon expelled him. He spent the remainder of the decade wandering around Europe, unable to return to his native country. Ro Oranim writes:
The Nazi regime [had] an immediate impact on Nussbaum’s art as he began painting what he saw as the fall of civilization. His painting Destruction reflects his feeling of impending doom, showing a couple standing among the architectural ruins and destroyed artworks. . . .
In 1940, German troops marched on Belgium. Nussbaum, [who was living in Brussels at the time], was arrested, along with 7,000 others, and sent . . . to the internment camp at St. Cyprian. He managed to escape and returned to Brussels where he went into hiding with the help of a friend, an art dealer. Nussbaum . . . drew the horrors of life in the internment camp. His painting Self-portrait in the Camp reflects the inhumane and humiliating conditions he experienced while in St. Cyprian.
Throughout his time in hiding, while living in constant fear for his life, he continued to express himself through his art, persistently chronicling the ever-worsening conditions and his perpetual dread that his hiding spot would be discovered by the authorities. . . . He painted his people, the poor and damned. . . . His final major work, The Skeletons Playing for the Dance, reflected the hopelessness of the situation from his perspective. Skeletons play musical instruments from the ruins of modern society—a cultured society of science, technology, art, and music. Among the skeletons, behind the organ, sits one figure who, while gaunt and malnourished, appears to be alive, suggesting that Nussbaum held out some hope that he would count himself among the survivors—a hope that would never be realized.
The Nazis located Nussbaum in 1944 and put him on the very last transport to Auschwitz, where he died soon after his arrival.