Born in 1864 in the Emmental, Wölfli grows up under deprived circumstances in and around Bern in Swityerland. In 1870 the father abandons the family. Wölfli and his mother become destitute and are forced to resettle in the community of Schangnau. Here they are separated and sent to work on different farms. In 1874 Wölfli’s mother dies and her youngest son grows up in degrading conditions as an orphan and hireling in various farming families in Schangnau.
Between 1880 and 1890 Wölfli finds work as farmhand, laborer and itinerant worker. In 1890 he is condemned to two years of prison for attempting to molest young girls. After being released from prison, he becomes more and more isolated. In 1895 he is again arrested for attempting to molest a girl and sent to the Waldau Psychiatric Mental Clinic near Bern in order to examine his mental accountability. He is diagnosed with “dementia paranoides” (schizophrenia) and interned for the rest of his life at Waldau.
In 1895, on the request of the doctors, Wölfli writes his Short life story. In 1899 he begins to draw. The first drawings to be saved date from 1904-1907: 50 of 200 to 300. From 1908 to 1912 Wölfli writes his fictitious autobiography From the Cradle to the Grave (3,000 pages). In the form of a travelogue, he transforms the early years of his life into a glorious childhood. From 1912 to 1916 Wölfli works on the Geographic and Algebraic Books (3,000 pages). They describe the creation of the future “St. Adolf Giant Creation”. Around 1916 Wölfli starts his series of drawings that he offers or sells to doctors, employees, visitors and the first collectors. From 1917 to 1922 he works on the Books with Songs and Dances (7,000 pages) where he celebrates and sings of his world to come. In 1921 Walter Morgenthaler publishes Ein Geisteskranker als Künstler, (Madness and Art. The Life and Works of Adolf Wölfli), his groundbreaking study read by Rainer Maria Rilke and Lou Andreas-Salomé among others. From 1924 to 1928 Wölfli writes the Album Books with Dances and Marches (around 5,000 pages) in which he sings further praises of his world using complex series of words musical compositions. From 1928 to 1930 he develops the (unfinished) Funeral March, a final and almost abstract requiem running over more than 8,000 pages.
On November 6, 1930 Wölfli dies of stomach cancer.