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Although Lyonel Feininger was born in New York in 1871 and lived there until he was sixteen, most of his artistic career occurred in Germany. The first child of a virtuoso violinist and a pianist, he sailed for Hamburg in the fall of 1887 with the intention of following in their musical footsteps, but soon changed his mind and entered art school, successfully passing the entrance examination to the Academy in Berlin in 1888. While still a student, he supplied some humourous drawings to a Berlin paper and, within a few years, he had developed a considerable reputation as a graphic artist providing political caricatures and cartoons for almost 15 years to papers in Berlin and Paris as well as the Chicago Sunday Tribune and Harper’s.
While Feininger had spent a few months in Paris in the early nineties, signing a contract with the Chicago Tribune in 1906 permitted him to move there for a couple of years. In 1901 he had married Clara Fürst, the concert pianist daughter of a famous muralist, and had two daughters, but he left her in 1905 for Julia Berg who moved with him to Paris where their first son was born. Lyonel and Julia were finally married in 1908 and had two more sons.
Encounters with French artists, particularly Robert Delaunay, had a deep and lasting effect on him, as did seeing the work of van Gogh and Cezanne, convincing him to drop the graphics that had garnered him such accolades in favour of oil painting. Returning to Berlin, he continued to produce some illustrations for certain periodicals and in 1910 he exhibited an oil painting for the first time at the Berlin Sezession. A brief trip to Paris in 1911 to show some of his paintings at the Salon des Indépendants introduced Feininger to the Cubism that had taken the city by a storm. Although drawn to it, he was more interested in the Futurists’ attempts to depict the essence of speed or noise than the Cubist analysis of objects. As a youngster in Manhattan, he had been fascinated by the hustle and bustle, the trains, boats and skyscrapers of New York - the technology that bespoke the bright future of man and machine.
Just as Feininger never limited himself to the strictures of analytical Cubism, he also remained somewhat aloof from the Expressionist mainstream even though he was close friends with the artists of Die Brücke. In 1913, he was invited to show with them at the seminal first German Salon d’Automne organized by Macke and Kandinsky for Der Sturm. With the outbreak of WWI, he was subjected to the usual restrictions on travel and communication but nonetheless had his first one-man exhibition at Der Sturm in 1917 before he was briefly interned when the US entered the war.
In 1918, he met Walter Gropius who appointed him as Master at the newly founded Bauhaus School in Weimar the following year. His woodcut Kathedrale was selected as the cover of the first Bauhaus Manifesto. With the establishment of a Republic in Berlin, one of the National Gallery’s first contemporary acquisitions was a piece by Feininger, an indication of the high regard he already enjoyed.
The Twenties were eventful years. Never far from his musical roots, Feininger composed a number of fugues for the organ. With his colleagues, Kandinsky, Jawlensky and Klee, he formed Die Blauen Vier (The Blue Four) a group promoted to great effect in America by their friend, Emmy “Galka” Scheyer. He taught at the Bauhaus for many years, following it to Dessau from Weimar but left in 1932 to return to Berlin. Fortunately, when it became apparent that the Nazis were to include him in their infamous Degenerate Art exhibition of 1937, he had already had an invitation to teach in America and returned once and for all shortly before his 66th birthday.
Living in New York, he continued to work, accepting major commissions for murals for the Marine Transportation Building and the Masterpieces of Art Building at the New York World’s Fair. His biggest breakthrough in America came with the extensive retrospective of his work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1944.
Painting until the very end, Feininger passed away in his apartment in New York in January 1956 in his 85th year.