As a counter movement to the inflexible academy structure that prevailed at the end of the 19th century, Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig of Hessen founded the Darmstadt Artists Colony in 1899. While visiting England, Ernst Ludwig became acquainted with the modern art of the arts & crafts movement. This gave him the idea that the settlement and promotion of artists and modern handicrafts could also give rise to an economic upswing. He summoned seven artists and offered them the former grand ducal park on Mathildenhöhe for the establishment of an artists’ colony. Peter Behrens, Rudolph Bosselt, Paul Bürck, Hans Christiansen, Ludwig Habich, Patriz Huber and above all Joseph Maria Olbrich, who, when summoned to Darmstadt, was already a member of the Vienna »Sezession«. It was Olbrich too who designed the symbol of the »Colony«, the so-called »Hochzeitsturm« (Marriage Tower) donated to commemorate the Grand Duke’s wedding. Olbrich was also entrusted with overall responsibility for the buildings on Mathildenhöhe: constructed according to his plans were seven villas and an exhibition building for changing presentations. Peter Behrens designed the eighth villa. The artists undertook both the planning as well as the complete interior fitting of the buildings, in which all forms of artistic expression were to be represented: architecture, sculpture, handicrafts, design and painting. The artists’ buildings, which were erected within 18 months on Mathildenhöhe, were rightly described as overall work of art. Their architecture and design was seen as unusual and spectacular by visitors of the time. Everything through to lamps, book covers and cutlery were designed in art nouveau style. Entitled »A Document of German Art«, the first exhibition at Mathildenhöhe proved to be an economic disaster. But each of the expositions in the years 1904, 1908 and 1914 enhanced the reputation of Mathildenhöhe and established Darmstadt as a centre of European art nouveau. The publisher Alexander Koch, who, with his publications »German Wallpaper Journal«, »Interior Decoration« and above all the magazine »German Art and Decoration«, exerted considerable influence on contemporary tastes, organized further exhibitions for the »Colony«. Internally, however, the progress of the Künstlerkolonie was anything but smooth. Between 1902 and 1903 five of the originally appointed artists left the »Colony« due to rivalry and escalating indignation at the special position of Olbrich. Ernst Ludwig appointed successors with the result that in the years up to 1914 not only were 23 art nouveau artists working in Darmstadt, but he also founded various manufactories that produced the designs of the artists. The outbreak of Wold War I marked the premature end of the fourth and final exhibition of the Künstlerkolonie, which was disbanded in 1914.
Since 1990 the Ernst-Ludwig-Haus, the large main building on Mathildenhöhe, has housed the Museum Künstlerkolonie, which traces the history of the Darmstädter Künstlerkolonie by virtue of numerous exhibits.