Christian Rohlfs was born in Niendorf on December 20, 1849 as the youngest son of a farmer. At the age of fifteen he injures his right knee and has to stay in bed for two years. During this time of illness he begins to make drawings. The poet Theodor Storm, who sees the boy's drawings, sends him to the art critic Ludwig Pietsch in Berlin in 1869. Pietsch writes a recommendation for the Weimar Saxon-Grand Ducal Art School, where Rohlfs studies from 1870 to 1874. The Grand Duke is Rohlfs' patron, so that he can live and work financially secured for many years. His leg injury gets worse again as of 1871, so that his right leg had to be amputated in 1873.
He changes to the Weimar Academy in 1876 and works as a free-lance artist as of 1884.
Rohlfs is introduced to Karl Ernst Osthaus by Henry van de Velde in 1901. He calls him to the planned Folkwang school in Hagen, however, lectures never took place there. In 1903 Rohlfs sees works of Vincent van Gogh and contemporary French artists in the Folkwang museum for the first time.
Cristian Rohls early style emanates from Naturalism and the Weimar School, before he turns more to Impressionism as of ca.1880. As of the 1890 his works have a stronger expression in terms of his usage of colors. Through a neoimpressionist phase, Christian Rohlfs gets to his expressive late style around 1906. His turn to Expressionism must have taken place after he had met Emil Nolde while staying in Soest for some time in the summer of 1905. His oeuvre's main part is made over the following years, while Rohlfs is already over 50 years old. His strongest and most expressive works are made between the age of 70 and 80.
In 1907 Rohlfs joins the "Sonderbund westdeutscher Kunstfreunde und Künstler" (Union of West German Artists) which is chaired by Karl Ernst Osthaus. In 1911 he also joins the "New Secession", and in 1914 the "Free Secession". On occasion of his 75th birthday he becomes honorary citizen of the city of Hagen, the same year he also becomes member of the Prussian Academy of Arts.
In 1937 Rohlfs is banned from his profession by the National Socialists and is not allowed to exhibit either. 412 of his works are removed from German museums and are stigmatized as degenerate.
During the summer months of the years from 1927 to 1937, Christian Rohlfs stays in Ascona. As a sign of honor for the 80-year old the Christian-Rohlfs-Museum is found in Hagen in 1929. He dies in Hagen on January 8, 1938.