- Lyonel Feininger
Signed and dated Feininger 08 (lower right)
Oil on canvas
Andreas Feininger, New York (the artist’s son)
Thence by descent
New York, Museum of Modern Art et al., Feininger/Hartley, 1944-46
Dallas, Dallas Museum of Contemporary Arts, Lyonel Feininger: a retrospective, 1963, no. 9
Detroit, The Detroit Institute of Arts, Lyonel Feininger: The Formative Years, 1964, no. 132
New York, Museum of Modern Art et al., The Machine as seen at the end of the mechanical age, 1968-9, b/w ill. p. 48
Munich, Haus der Kunst et al., Lyonel Feininger, 1973, no. 68
Hans Hess, Lyonel Feininger, London, 1961, no. 25, illustrated p. 250
Locomotive is one of Feininger’s rare and remarkable early works dating from the key formative period of his career as a painter. Having spent fifteen years working as a successful illustrator for periodicals in Berlin and Paris, Feininger only turned his attention to painting in 1907 at the age of 36, adapting one of his published cartoons into a composition in oil. With this new medium, he was able to take greater compositional risks, creating striking tonal contrasts and using daring color combinations in a similar manner to the Fauves. But Feininger would never completely abandon his allegiance to draftsmanship and increasingly emphasized its importance in his oil compositions over the next few years.
The present work was painted during Feininger’s stay in Paris, where he took a studio on the Boulevard Raspail. His paintings from this period reflect the artist’s fascination with the city and with signs of modernity, and the subject of trains and locomotives is one to which he often returned in his graphic works (fig. 2), oils (figs. 3 & 4) and drawings. The artist and his wife-to-be Julia were in Paris until the spring of 1908; later in the year they traveled to London where they got married before settling in Berlin. During the time spent in Paris Feininger worked frantically, certainly aware of the fact that he took up painting rather late in his life, and it was during these months that his characteristic style was formulated. Hans Hess wrote about the artist’s work from this period: ‘With one exception – a still life – all paintings of the winter of 1907-1908 are grotesques. The Wedding Trip, an old crazy Locomotive [the present work], and the Newspaper Readers I are the outcome of his old desire for the fantastic. Caricature here becomes independent; it is his second alternative of freeing himself from his past experience by finding for it a painterly expression’ (H. Hess, op. cit., p. 42).
Feininger’s experience as a graphic artist gave him a creative advantage when it came to rendering three-dimensional effects in his painting, as he was remarkably adept at conveying spatial depth without being reliant upon gradations of color or excessive details. In Locomotive the various elements overlap in a way that suggests the notion of distance, while at the same time forming a manifestly flat surface. The choice of a vivid palette and striking tonal contrasts, as well as the sharp, bright outlining of the individual features that appear to be pasted onto the surface of the picture, are all derived from Feininger’s experience as an illustrator. The artist’s characteristic caricature-style treatment of figures is evident here in the rendering of the man in the foreground, whose exaggeratedly foreshortened features create an overstated sense of movement and perspective.
Writing to his wife Julia in 1908, the year the present work was executed, he explained that he had become more adept as a painter, incorporating more readily the "impressionistic" modes of execution that he had learned while working as a young illustrator in France: ‘I am painting again, better than before, in my opinion. My approach has become looser and is closer to my way of drawing again… for in the past three-and-a-half months here I have been through various stages, and now come back to my Paris style… It must be right for me to be returning to the way I naturally draw and perceive, for it gives me so much confidence. This time I am using color more energetically, and I have a number of pictures in the pipeline, dear God, they only need to be painted" (quoted in Ulrich Luckhardt, Lyonel Feininger, Munich, 1989, p. 52). Over the course of the next decade, the artist completed several figural compositions in oil that are now considered some of the finest works of his career. As the focus of his paintings gradually shifted toward architecture and towards an increasingly abstract style, nothing that he would produce in later decades would come close to the whimsy and spiritedness of the early pictures, including the present work.
Fig. 1, Contemporary photograph of a locomotive engine
Fig. 2, Lyonel Feininger, Around 1840, 1908, caricature from Sporthumor
Fig. 3, Lyonel Feininger, Small Blue Locomotive, 1909, oil on canvas
Fig. 4, Lyonel Feininger, Locomotive with the Big Wheel I, 1910, oil on canvas