Ernst of Saxe-Meiningen is the 12th and current ruler of the Thuringian Duchy of Saxe-Meiningen, one of the constituent states of the German Empire, succeeding his half-brother Bernhard III on 16th January 1928. The duke is also renowned as an excellent artist throughout the empire, often simply being called Malerherzog ("Painting Duke") by the public.
Ernst was born in Meiningen, the eldest son of the heir apparent to the Duchy of Saxe-Meiningen, Prince Georg and his second wife, Princess Feodora of Hohenlohe-Langenburg. His father succeeded to the throne in 1866. Ernst would become second in line to the throne after his half-brother Bernhard, who later ruled as Duke of Saxe-Meiningen between 1914 and 1928.
Ernst was raised and educated together with his younger brother Friedrich in Meiningen. One of his educators was the famous Brunswickan teacher Heinrich von Eggeling. From 1873, he attended schools in Dresden and Hildburghausen.
In 1875, Ernst had a relationship with Augusta Victoria of Schleswig-Holstein (1858-1921), who would later marry Wilhelm II of Prussia, but her parents ultimately urged her to break up.
In 1879, Ernst began to study Law in Bonn, Straßburg and Leipzig. After spending some time in France in the 1880s, he decided to join the Prussian Cavalry in Potsdam.
In 1884, Ernst decided to dedicate himself to the Fine Arts and began to study Art in Munich. He traveled around and met many famous artists of his era. He opened his own atelier in 1885 and had finished his first portraits by 1888. Soon, he became acclaimed in German artist circles and even maintained contacts to the Kaiser himself.
Ernst was married, morganatically, in Munich on 20 September 1892, to Katharina Jensen, daughter of the painter Marie and the poet Wilhelm Jensen. Not permitted to share her husband's dynastic title, his wife was created Baroness von Saalfeld on their wedding day by Ernst's father, Georg II. Despite his unequal marriage, Ernst retained his succession rights to the duchy of Saxe-Meiningen. The couple moved to Florence, near the place of Ernst's old mentor Adolf von Hildebrand. Ernst hoped to gain fresh inspiration for his art in Italy.
In the next two decades, Ernst dedicated most of his time to his art and to extensive travels throughout the world. In 1900, he moved back to Munich. Now, as he was becoming older, he often had to represent his family and his aging father on official or public events throughout the Duchy of Saxe-Meiningen.
Only a few weeks before the start of the Weltkrieg, Ernst's father died aged 88 and was succeeded by Prince Bernhard. Ernst would become heir apparent.