PhotoLexicon, Volume 10, nr. 20 (February 1993) (en)

Max and Ernst Büttinghausen

Anja Krabben


In 1873, Max Büttinghausen left his native Germany to settle in Amsterdam, where he established a photography studio that would later become highly successful. The ‘Max Büttinghausen’ photography studio was in business for more than fifty years in Amsterdam, with branch stores in Utrecht and Godesberg (Germany). Max’s son, Ernst, took over the company after his father’s death, continuing the business under the same name, ‘Max Büttinghausen’. Both Max and Ernst were specialised in portrait photography.




Friedrich Wilhelm Adolph Maximilian (‘Max’) Büttinghausen is born on 15 February in Urdenbach, today a suburb of Düsseldorf, as the son of Johann Franz Joseph Büttinghausen, a court clerk, and Sophia Rehorn. There are eleven children in the family.


The Amsterdam register of arrivals cites the date of Max Büttinghausen’s official arrival in the city on 25 February. His profession is listed as photographer.


Max Büttinghausen’s name appears for the first time in the Amsterdam city address book: profession photographer, located at Singel 133.


Max Büttinghausen is a participant at the Internationale Tentoonstelling van Photographie (‘International Exhibition of Photography’), organised by the APhV (Amsterdamsche Photographen-Vereeniging, ‘Amsterdam Photographers Association’). He wins a bronze medal in the category ‘portraits’.


In April, Joseph Büttinghausen arrives in Amsterdam. He is a son of Max’s brother, Adolph Büttinghausen, who recently died. Joseph moves in with his uncle and becomes his apprentice.


Max Büttinghausen opens a branch office in Utrecht at Catharijnesingel 39.


Max Büttinghausen relocates his Amsterdam studio from Singel 133 to Singel 512, near the Koningsplein.


On 14 September, Max Büttinghausen weds Adèle Rissmann, a German woman who has lived in Wiesbaden, Germany, up until this time. The couple has four children. Joseph leaves the studio and home of his uncle, and departs for Paris to work with the photographer Fougeron.

From this year on, Max Büttinghausen is no longer listed in the Utrecht city address books.


On 8 June, Max and Adèle’s first child is born, Ernst Maximilian (‘Ernst’).


On 18 July, a second child is born, Elisabeth Louise (Else).


In May, the ‘Max Büttinghausen’ photography studio moves from the Singel to Spui 7, on the corner of the Kalverstraat, in the new building of Focke & Meltzer, where Max has rented a single floor.


Max acquires the house at Koblenzerstrasse 77 in Godesberg (Germany). A studio is also built at this location.


Ernst Büttinghausen attends the Evangelische Pädagogium (Realschule und Progymnasium) in Godesberg. He resides there as a boarding student.


On 3 April, Adèle Büttinghausen and her children are signed out of the Amsterdam city register. Their new place of residence is listed as Godesberg. At this point, Max Büttinghausen remains registered in Amsterdam. On 30 July, however, he registers in Godesberg as a photographer. On 20 October, Max Büttinghausen is registered, together with his family, as residents of Godesberg.

In Amsterdam, Max Büttinghausen becomes the owner of the buildings at Spui 15 and 17, both purchased for Dfl. 12,000 on 1 and 4 May, respectively.


On 1 February, Büttinghausen purchases the building at Voetboogstraat 3 for Dfl. 20,000. On 24 April, Max Büttinghausen signs himself out of the Amsterdam city register. His new city of residence is stated as Godesberg. At the end of May/early June, however, the Büttinghausen family is no longer listed in the city register of Godesberg.


Max Büttinghausen’s studio moves from Spui 7 to Spui 15–17.


In Amsterdam, Max Büttinghausen becomes the owner of two more buildings. On 20 April, he purchases Spui 19 for Dfl. 11,000, and on 20 April, Voetboogstraat 1 for Dfl. 5,000. The five structures now in his possession are located immediately adjacent to each other and together form the corner Spui/Voetboogstraat.


Büttinghausen orders the demolition of all five buildings. In their stead, a new structure is built, called ‘Gebouw Helios’ (‘Helios Building’), the new home and working address (Spui 15-19) of Max Büttinghausen and his family. The architect Gerrit van Arkel designs the building.


Ernst Büttinghausen takes his entrance exam at the RABK (Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten, ‘National Academy of Fine Arts’) in Amsterdam and is accepted. Starting on 27 September, he takes drawing and painting classes for a period of two years.


In October, Ernst studies photography at a school in Zurich, Switzerland.


On 17 May, Ernst Büttinghausen enlists with the German army. He is not required to serve actively and becomes an ‘Ersatz-Reservist’.

On 25 December, Max Büttinghausen dies without leaving a will. According to German law, Adèle Büttinghausen—as the widow—has the right to a one-quarter share of the inheritance, with each of the four children receiving a 3/16 share. It takes several years to complete the execution of the will. Ernst Büttinghausen takes over the running of the family business.


Between 1907 and 1909, the ‘Gebouw Helios’ is sold for Dfl. 120,000 and a half-cent to the ‘Maatschappij tot exploitatie van ververschingslokalen N.V. Maison Ledeboer’ (‘Society for the Exploitation of Refreshment Halls N.V. Maison Ledeboer’). Gerrit van Arkel converts the interior into a teahouse/lunchroom. The ‘Max Büttinghausen’ photo studio is still located in the building: Ernst rents the top floor from the new owner.


Max Büttinghausen’s estate is divided among his widow and the couple’s four children. Ernst and Else Büttinghausen acquire the rights to continue the business under the name ‘Max Büttinghausen’. They also purchase the inventory that belongs to the business. They set up a business partnership, with Ernst in charge of the technical aspects, and his sister, Else, in charge of the administration.


Adèle Büttinghausen sells the house in Godesberg for DM 54,000 to Heinrich Vossen.


On 1 July, the partnership ‘Max Büttinghausen’ is converted into a limited partnership. From this point forward, Ernst Büttinghausen is solely responsible for the studio. His sister Else is involved in the business solely as a monetary sponsor.


On 11 January, Ernst Büttinghausen marries Branca Blits.


On 29 July, Ernst and Branca Büttinghausen receive their first and only child, Walter Joseph Victor.


Ernst Büttinghausen, who has been suffering from tuberculosis for some time, becomes seriously ill but continues working as a photographer. His wife, Branca Büttinghausen, who Ernst has taught to photograph and make prints, assists him.


In April, Ernst is placed in a clinic in Wageningen. His wife does the best she can to keep the business running. The number of clients drops sharply.


Ernst Büttinghausen dies on 21 January. His wife, Branca, is left behind with a considerable debt. She tries to keep the business running, but without success. Very soon after, the ‘Max Büttinghausen’ photography studio goes out of business.


In October, Ernst Büttinghausen’s photographic equipment is put up for public sale at the auction house G.T. Bom & Zoon in Amsterdam.


During World War II, Branca sells Max and Ernst Büttinghausen’s entire glass plate archive to the photographer Godfried de Groot. After De Groot’s death, the Büttinghausen archive is put out onto the street and hauled away by the city’s sanitation department.


Max Büttinghausen was a professional portrait photographer whose primary goal was the success of his business. Max’s son, Ernst, who was trained as a painter, surpassed his father artistically, but did not have his father’s ambition to make a name for himself nor his desire to promote himself publicly.

Nothing is known of Max Büttinghausen’s educational background. At the age of twenty-six, he arrived in Amsterdam in 1873 and registered with the city as a photographer. He may possibly have worked as an apprentice for an older brother, Otto Büttinghausen, who owned a photography studio in München Gladbach. According to the Amsterdam city address books, Max had no studio of his own until 1875. What he did in the two previous years is not known, but he may possibly have worked for another photographer. There exists a carte-de-visite portrait of circa 1875, taken by the photographers ‘Le Grand & Büttinghausen’ in Dordrecht. There is no way of ascertaining any connection to ‘Max’ Büttinghausen. In any event, at no point was he listed in the Dordrecht city register or address books.

Ernst Büttinghausen studied to become an artist, but had no intentions of becoming a photographer. His parents forced him to make this choice, under threat of disownment, in all likelihood because they wanted to keep the company in the family in the event of Max’s death. After having received two years of education at the RABK (Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten, ‘National Academy of Fine Arts’) in Amsterdam, Ernst departed for Zurich to take lessons in photography, probably at his father’s insistence. The duration of his stay in Switzerland—he had a residence permit for three years—and at what school he was enrolled is not known.

Ernst’s German army pass from 1906 states his profession as ‘Painter’. During these years, he must still have cherished the hope he would one day work as a painter. In December 1906, however, Max Büttinghausen died and the responsibility of taking over the family business fell on Ernst’s shoulders. After this, Ernst painted and drew only as a hobby.

It is not known why Max Büttinghausen went to Amsterdam in 1873. One year before, his brother Otto Büttinghausen is known to have travelled to Arnhem to take over the photography studio of Confeld von Felbert, located on the corner of the Kerkstraat. Max may very well have come to the Netherlands on the advice of his brother.

Max Büttinghausen never completely broke ties with his native country. He visited Germany on a regular basis, married a German woman, and sent his children to German boarding schools. Following the purchase of a house in Godesberg in 1887, he spent part of each year living in Germany. In this manner, he and his wife were able to keep their German nationality.

In Godesberg, Max also had a studio built where he was able to practice his profession. Various carte-de-visite portraits exist on which both Godesberg and Amsterdam are cited. Even though Büttinghausen was registered in Godesberg for a brief period of time, Amsterdam was still his home base and the place where he spent most of his time. In Max’s absence, hired personnel ran the Amsterdam studio. Official documents reveal he rented out his studio in Godesberg to other photographers, who are likely to have worked under their own name. The German photographer Richard Kohlmann, for instance, had a rental contract during the years 1906 to 1920.

In the period 1879–1881, a studio in Utrecht was operated under the name of Max Büttinghausen, which produced various carte-de-visite portraits bearing the text ‘Max Büttinghausen–Amsterdam–Utrecht’. There is nothing to indicate, however, that Max himself ever worked as a photographer in the city of Utrecht. During these years, Gerard Peter Brill, as well a German photographer, was registered at the same address as Büttinghausen, specifically, Catharijnesingel 39 in Utrecht. A possible scenario is that Büttinghausen rented the studio, with Brill working for him as an employee.

Büttinghausen’s son Ernst was born in Amsterdam and was naturalised as a Dutch citizen five years later. He was still in possession of a German passport. In 1906, he reported to the German army, where he became an ‘Ersatz-Reservist’. During World War I, Ernst managed to avoid active duty thanks to the efforts of his sister Else, who managed to convince the German army command that her brother was the only breadwinner in the Büttinghausen family and that the ‘family business’ would be wiped out should he be forced to leave.

Most of what has survived of Max Büttinghausen’s oeuvre consists of portrait photos. He worked according to typical nineteenth-century standards, with a minimum of variation in poses and lighting. His photos were printed mainly in the popular carte-de-visite and cabinet card formats. Only a few large-format portraits are known. His clientele was extensive and varied: ranging from ordinary citizens to actors, actresses, and members of the upper echelons of society.

Depending on a person’s wish, Büttinghausen’s clients were portrayed either in full-length or as a bust. In the case of the full-length portraits, all of the usual studio attributes were present: a painted background cloth, a gate to lean against, a chair with a straight back upon which the client posed sitting upright, or a stool. The portrait busts, sometimes printed in an oval form, are shot in front of a uniform white background. While all attention is focused on the subject’s face in these portraits, Büttinghausen made no attempt to capture the character or mood of the person sitting for his camera. Surviving family portraits show that he photographed his children precisely in the same stiff manner.

In terms of technique, Ernst Büttinghausen’s portraits are more successful than those of his father. They suggest that more time had been spent on these portraits, both on the shot as well as the photo finishing. With Max, every client received the same standard treatment. With Ernst, by contrast, the lighting, the pose of the model, and the angle from which the subject was photographed were all adjusted in response to a given situation. The popularity of the carte-de-visite portrait had come to an end. Ernst Büttinghausen printed primarily in large formats and experimented with various kinds of paper and techniques. Despite the added effort, his results were sometimes less than successful. Because of the severity of his models’ facial expressions, many of Ernst’s portraits are still highly reminiscent of his father’s carte-de-visite portraits. His best shots are those taken of friends: fascinating portraits of relaxed sitters and photographed with favourable lighting.

Other shots by Ernst Büttinghausen are those he took of a woman dressed differently in each photo. It remains unclear whether this was a professional model, nor can it be determined whether these photos were taken for purposes of fashion photography. Ernst’s initial efforts were in the area of portrait photography. In the 1920s, however, he began to investigate other genres. In a 1925 advertising brochure, he offered his services to photograph buildings and interiors for commerce, industry, and advertising, as well as reproductions of paintings, documents, and objects of art. Surviving photos verify that Ernst indeed also produced photos of this nature. His oeuvre includes shots of factory and office interiors, photos of silver and other utilitarian objects, as well as black-and-white reproductions of paintings. In terms of their technique, these are good photos. It is not known for what purpose they might have been used, e.g. for catalogue advertisements. Several cityscapes taken by Ernst have also been preserved.

Although Max Büttinghausen advertised with ‘photographique artistique’ (‘artistic photography’), his business acumen was superior to his artistic talent. His chief aim was to build up a business that was successful and well known.

In 1877, Max Büttinghausen took part in the Internationale Tentoonstelling van Photographie (‘International Exhibition of Photography’) at the artist’s society ‘Arti et Amicitiae’ (‘Arts and Friends’) in Amsterdam. His participation in this exhibition, organised by the APhV (Amsterdamsche Photographen-Vereeniging, ‘Amsterdam Photographers Association’), is likely to have been motivated by a desire to achieve greater notoriety for his business, thus drawing new clients. The exhibition at Arti et Amicitiae was open to all the members of the APhV. While still marked by a degree of pretention in 1874—with the wish to ‘assemble as many artistic photographers as possible’—with the 1877 exhibition there were no restrictions whatsoever. In this year, carte-de-visite portraits, cabinet card photos, and retouched photos were also welcome. Max Büttinghausen won a bronze medal in the category of portraits. The catalogue of Arti et Amicitiae lists his entry as six large-format portraits, sixty carte-de-visite portraits, sixteen cabinet card photos, and four portraits ‘op heele plaat’ (‘on the entire plate’).

Max Büttinghausen’s goal was to build a house in Amsterdam that would reflect his status as a successful photographer. To achieve this, he purchased five buildings on the corner of the Spui and the Voetboogstraat during the years 1894 to 1899, which were all immediately adjacent to each other. In 1897, prior to the acquistion of the fifth and final building in 1899, Büttinghausen commissioned the architect Gerrit van Arkel to design a monumental structure to replace the existing structures. One year later, in 1900, the five buildings were demolished and replaced by the ‘Gebouw Helios’ (the ‘Helios Building’). Gebouw Helios’ design is a rather austere form of Art Nouveau architecture. A regularly recurring theme in the building’s decoration is the ‘helianthus’ (sunflower). The facade features a tile tableau with the text ‘M. Büttinghausen * Fotografie * Artistique’ (‘M. Büttinghausen * Photography * Artistic’). In 1900, Gerrit van Arkel’s design was awarded a bronze medal at the Wereldtentoonstelling (‘World Fair’) in Paris.

Following Max’s death, a description of the building and its inventory was drawn up by an estate agent, with the items to be put up for sale. The studio was on the top floor, with a glass ceiling to allow natural light. The following spaces adjacent to the studio were designed to facilitate the photographic process: a reception room, a workroom where the enlarger stood, a darkroom, a rinsing room, a retouching room, and a framing room. The list of Büttinghausen’s inventory gives us further insight into his studio. Mentioned are pieces of furniture with which (or on which) the client was able to pose: eight chairs, three fauteuils, two sofas, a canapé lounge, four tables, a mahogany writing desk, a children’s table with a sheep’s hide, a child’s chair, and a chair for bust portraits. For the background, the client was able to choose from seven kinds of draperies, two curtains, and seven background canvases; special mention is made of a ‘Schwarzwalderachtergrond’ (‘Black Forest background’). Also listed in the inventory are four head bridles, a balustrade, a flowerpot on a stand, and a wooden column with a flower pot.

In addition to the photography business, the building was large enough to house the Büttinghausen family’s living quarters. Other spaces were rented out to third parties.

Ernst possessed little of his father’s business instinct. He rarely ventured out to promote the business, and as far as is known, he never participated in any exhibitions. Business was often poor. This may perhaps have been in part because the photographic profession was never of Ernst’s own choosing. In letters that Else Büttinghausen wrote to her brother and others, she blames his character, accusing him of being lazy and careless. Else describes herself as driven and ambitious, and regrets that she lacks the knowledge to take the business entirely out of Ernst’s hands and to make something of the studio. The brother and sister’s working relationship was difficult, with frequent disagreements. In 1914, Else decided to find other work. From then on, she travelled back and forth between Amsterdam, Godesberg (to be with her mother), and The Hague, where she found work as a governess.

When the business was doing poorly, Ernst’s cousin Joseph Büttinghausen—who ran a successful photography studio at Herengracht 150 in Amsterdam—would assist on occasion. In July 1920, Ernst wrote Else a letter telling her that business was going well in that month. Apparently, Joseph had recommended Ernst to a number of his clients and asked him to do the finishing work on reorders.

Despite the business’ frequently precarious financial situation, Ernst Büttinghausen occasionally had hired personnel working for him. A man named ‘Krone’, in particular, is known to have worked in the studio as an operator/retoucher.

Max Büttinghausen’s photos are typically albumen, celloidin, and carbon prints. He usually retouched the large-format photos. Ernst Büttinghausen worked with different techniques, such as carbon printing, bromide printing, and platinum printing. In addition, he experimented with prints on textile. Like Max, Ernst also retouched his work. Only six of his glass plates have survived, all with retouching. In a 1925 advertising brochure, Ernst offered the following: ‘For our respected clientele, who desire something new and extremely different in the area of photography, we draw your attention to our newest specialty, specifically the simili-litho and simili-etching.’ While his precise working method is unknown, several examples of these photographs have been preserved. One can hardly tell that they were produced with a photographic process: they look like reproductions of etchings. Ernst Büttinghausen also produced colourised photos by custom order, thus somewhat satisfying his desire to paint and draw.

Max Büttinghausen was a portrait photographer who approached his work in a traditional, rather unspectacular manner. While his photos are in no way superior to those made by the average nineteenth-century portrait photographer, Büttinghausen exemplifies a hard-working photographer who fully utilised the talents he had. His success allowed him to hold a prominent position in society. It likewise demonstrates what an average portrait studio was able to achieve around the turn of the century.

Ernst Büttinghausen’s approach to photography was more artistic than his father’s. In terms of technique and subject matter, his interest in the various opportunities made possible through photography was also more marked. A number of Ernst’s portraits are extremely noteworthy. While his work reveals a step in the direction of a pictorial approach to portrait photography, he either lacked or failed to take advantage of the capacity to develop himself more effectively in this area, as did Jacob Merkelbach, a fellow Amsterdam photographer. Ernst is unlikely to have been content with being the heir to a professional and commercial portrait studio. Had he been given an opportunity to discover and practice photography as an autonomous artist, he is likely to have been more successful in the field of portrait art. His commercial work was respectable and contemporary, and scarcely inferior to Bernard Eilers’ work produced in the early 1920s. In the end, Ernst Büttinghausen’s life was simply too short for him to have evolved into a photographer of merit in this specific area.


Primary bibliography

(Advertenties), in Algemeen Handelsblad 1900-1906.

Secondary bibliography

Catalogus Internationale Tentoonstelling van Photographie, Amsterdam (Arti et Amicitiae) 1877, p. 4.

Catalogus van de boekverkooping; bibliotheken en instrumenten; afkomstig van: Chr. Bles, M. Büttinghausen e.a., Amsterdam (G.T. Bom & Zon.) 1930.

Auteur onbekend, Gebouw voor een photographisch atelier, architect G. van Arkel, in Bouwkundig Tijdschrift 19 ( 1 9 0 1 ) , p . 9.

Ingeborg Th. Leijerzapf (red.), Fotografie in Nederland 1839-1920, Den Haag (Staatsuitgeverij) 1978, p. 92.


Amsterdamsche Photographen-Vereeniging. (Max)

Nederlandse Fotografen Kunstkring. (Max en Ernst)


1877 Bronzen medaille, Internationale Tentoonstelling van Photographie, Amsterdam. (Max)

1883 Zilveren medaille, Internationale koloniale en uitvoerhandel tentoonstelling, Amsterdam. (Max)


1877 (g) Amsterdam, Arti et Amicitiae, Internationale Tentoonstelling van Photographie. (Max)

1883 (g) Amsterdam, Internationale koloniale en uitvoerhandel tentoonstelling. (Max)


Amsterdam, Bouw- en woningtoezicht.

Amsterdam, W.J.V. Büttinghausen (documentatie en mondelinge informatie).

Amsterdam, Gemeentearchief.

Amsterdam, J. Groeneboer (documentatie en mondelinge informatie).

Amsterdam, Kadaster.

Arnhem, Gemeentearchief.

Bonn, Stadtarchiv.

Krimpen a/d Lek, W. O’Herne (documentatie en mondelinge informatie).

Leiden, Prentenkabinet, bibliotheek en documentatiebestand.

Utrecht, Gemeentearchief.


Amsterdam, Gemeentearchief.

Amsterdam, Theaterinstituut.

Den Haag, Rijksdienst Beeldende Kunst.

Leiden, Prentenkabinet van de Rijksuniversiteit Leiden.

Utrecht, Gemeentearchief.