Erich Brill was born into a Jewish family in Lübeck. They moved to Hamburg in 1897. Brill initially did an apprenticeship at his father’s timber wholesale company, then studied philosophy and political sciences, taking his doctorate in 1919. At the same time, he studied art. He also worked at the Académie Colarossi in Paris. He was active in Hamburg as a freelance artist from 1920 onwards. It was also in 1920 that he married the Jewish journalist Marte Leiser; their daughter Alice was born that same year. Also in 1920, Brill joined the Hamburg Art Association and the Hamburg Artists’ Association. He worked as a painting and drawing teacher in Orselina, near Locarno, until 1929. From 1931 onwards, Brill’s paintings were vilified as “Jewish art”, then as “degenerate”, and were destroyed.
Thus Brill emigrated to Amsterdam in late 1933, where he lived for a while with his brother Fritz Brill, and was able to exhibit and sell his paintings. He was divorced from his wife Marte, who emigrated to Brazil, leaving their daughter Alice with Brill in Amsterdam. They both followed Marte to São Paulo in 1934. In 1936, however, Brill decided to return to the Netherlands, where he enjoyed success exhibiting his Brazilian paintings. Despite urgent warnings from his brother Fritz, he returned to Hamburg in 1936 to close down his former studio there. He was denounced in 1937 and arrested for “racial defilement” on account of having an “Aryan” girlfriend. Brill spent fourteen months in detention awaiting trial. He was ultimately condemned to four years in prison and sent to the Fuhlsbüttel Jail. He was released on 29 November 1941 and deported to the Jungfernhof concentration camp near Riga on 6 December 1941, where he was killed in a mass shooting in Bikernieki forest on 26 March 1942.