Born in 1871 in New York City, Lyonel Feininger entered a German-American family blessed with artistic and expressive abilities. His father, Karl Feininger, was a German-born violinist and his mother, Elizabeth, was an American singer of German-descent. Lyonel showed immense interest in the arts at an early age and soon began to experiment with his father's instrument of choice. At the age of sixteen, Karl and Elizabeth brought their son to Germany to formally study the violin. It was during this 1887 sojourn in his father's homeland that Lyonel enrolled in several drawing classes at the Hamburg Kunstgewerbeschule (College of Arts and Crafts). Immediately finding a passion for the medium, the young man left Hamburg to pursue a study of art at the Königliche Akademie in Berlin under Ernst Hancke. Here at the Akademie, Feininger befriended another young American artist named Alfred Vance Churchill, with whom he traded letters and artwork for many years. Churchill later became a noted art critic, a Director of Fine Arts at Columbia University, and a professor of Art History at Smith College. Similar to Churchill, who spent several years at various art academies across Europe, Feininger briefly left Berlin to study at the College St. Servais in Liege and also under the Italian Filippo Colarossi in Paris before returning to Berlin at the Akademie der Kunste with Karl Schlabitz.
In the early 1890s, Feininger became a forerunner in German cartooning and his caricatures and drawings were published regularly in German, French, and American satirical magazines. Utilizing his academic training, Feininger quickly distinguished himself among other caricaturists as a skilled draftsman who also had a keen knowledge of color and composition. By 1900, the majority of German readers would have been able to identify a Feininger cartoon. During the early twentieth-century, his caricatures became increasingly political and he received his first major comic strip in an American newspaper in 1906. "The Kin-der-Kids" premiered in the April 29th edition of the Chicago Sunday Tribune, accompanied by a description of the cartoonist as "Feininger the Famous German Artist...There is no better draftsman in the world than Mr. Feininger." His second comic series, "Wee Willie Winkie's World" was also published by the Chicago Tribune.
Although Lyonel Feininger regularly exhibited drawings in Germany at the annual Berlin Secession and the Great Berlin Art exhibition during his career as a caricaturist, his career as a fine artist began in Paris. Following a separation from his wife Clara Fürst, Feininger traveled to Paris with his mistress Julia Borg. Deeply influenced by the French avant-garde in Paris, Feininger shifted from early paintings that resembled his figurative cartoons to autonomous, inventive compositions. In addition, his once adored caricatures began to fall out of favor in Germany due to his French influences. Dr. Otto Eysler, the publisher of Lustige Blätter (a humor magazine), wrote to Feininger on August 20, 1907 saying, "Unfortunately, general opinion has shown that during your stay in Paris you have adopted a certain grotesque and extreme tone that the German public no longer understands." Returning to Berlin in 1908, Feininger hoped to give up cartoons, referring to them as the "clown japes that the world knows me by."
Despite his widespread recognition in Germany as a caricaturist and draftsman, his early career as a painter went unknown. He exhibited his first painting in public at the Berlin Secession in 1910, followed by two paintings at the 1911 Secession. Following these exhibitions, the artists who formed Der Blaue Reiter, including Wassily Kandinsky, Alexei Jawlenksy, and Paul Klee, asked Feininger to show works in the First German Autumn Salon at the Galerie Der Sturm in Berlin. Feininger exhibited five paintings alongside many Modernist masterpieces, including works by Umberto Boccioni, Marc Chagall, Robert and Sonia Delauney, and Marsden Hartley. During the Autumn Salon, Feininger sold three paintings, one of which was purchased by Paul Poiret, the Parisian fashion designer. The 1913 exhibition not only led to Feininger's widespread recognition as a painter, but also contributed to the beginning of his financial success.
In 1917, Feininger received a solo exhibition at Der Sturm in which he displayed 46 paintings and 65 other works, prompting a critical discussion of the artist led by Paul Westheim, publisher of Künstblatt. Two years later, Feininger became the first artist hired by Walter Gropius to teach at the Staatliche Bauhaus. Working together with Bauhaus colleagues and friends such as Klee, Kandinsky, and Oskar Schlemmer, Feininger became a leading figure in Germany's Modernist movement. He exhibited in Munich, Frankfurt, Dresden, Berlin, and alongside Klee at the Kestner Gesellschaft in Hanover. At the Galerie J. B. Neumann, Feininger sold 15 paintings and his piece entitled Benz VI was acquired by the Städtische Museum in Stettin.
In 1925, with Alexei Jawlenski, Paul Klee and Vasily Kandinsky, Feininger formed the Blue four, which made its début at the Charles Daniel Gallery in New York. When the Bauhaus moved to Dessau a year later, Feininger followed as artist-in-residence without teaching responsibilities, so that he was free to concentrate on painting. His architectural landscapes, such as Church of the Minorites II (1926; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis), and a growing number of seascapes inspired by the Baltic or memories of the American coast, such as the Glorious Victory of the Sloop 'Maria' (1926), assumed a physical and emotional grandeur unprecedented in his work. Important recognition ensued when he was included in MoMA’s inaugural Paintings by 19 Living Americans (1929) and given a large solo exhibition by the Nationalgalerie, Berlin (1931). However, later seascapes, some set at night with storm-tossed ships (e.g. Four-Mast Bark and Schooner, 1934; Guggenheim Museum, New York), others strangely vacant except for small isolated figures (e.g. Dunes at Eventide, 1936; Guggenheim Museum, New York), seemed to express a deepening concern over the forced closing of the Bauhaus, the spread of Fascism across Europe and ultimately the Nazis’ public display of his own and other modern art as ‘degenerate’.
In 1937 Feininger left Germany for California, where he taught for a term at Mills College, Oakland, before resettling permanently in New York. Except for murals designed for two buildings at the World’s Fair in 1938, Marine Transportation and Masterpieces of Modern Art (destoyed), two years passed before he resumed painting. The rough texture, grainy contours and relatively subdued color of his late German style at first carried into his American work, which varied from wistful recollections of pre-war Europe, for example Cathedral (Cammin) (1942; Cleveland Museum of Art), to tentative efforts to pictorialize the vast scale and new energy of his native city, as in Manhattan I (1940; Museum of Modern Art, New York). Encouraged by Curt Valentin and by major prizes from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and Worcester Art Museum, MA, Feininger’s confidence gradually returned. By 1944, the year of his joint retrospective with Marsden Hartley at MoMA, his New York imagery, for example in Manhattan, The Tower (1944; Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco), showed a graphic purity and aerial radiance akin to the mystical ‘white writing’ of his friend Mark Tobey. The following summer he accepted his former Bauhaus colleague Josef Albers’s invitation to serve as guest instructor at Black Mountain College, Lake Eden, NC. Late in his career he was elected president of the Federation of American Painters and Sculptors and honored with membership in the National Institute of Arts and Letters. (3)
1. Luckhardt, Ulrich. "Lyonel Feininger: Notes on the Career of an American in Germany." Lyonel Feininger: At the Edge of the World. New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press, 2011. 235-239.
2. Corley, Erin. A Finding Aid to the Alfred Vance Churchill Papers Regarding Lyonel Feinigner, 1888-1944, Smithsonian Archives of American Art, Washington, DC: 2006.
3. Adapted from Grove Art Online.
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