The weeks Kandinsky spent in Murnau and Upper Bavaria in 1908 and 1909 were among the most pivotal in the development of his art and the picturesque scenery of the countryside around Murnau gave his paintings a renewed energy. The liberty taken with color by the Fauve painters, whose works Kandinsky had seen in Paris in 1905-07, had been a revelation, pointing the way towards the invention of a pictorial language that would free painting from the object. In Murnau, Kandinsky was able to build on that experience and join Matisse and Derain in understanding how to formulate an abstraction from nature. Townscapes, such as the present one, are characterized by a simplification of forms which gave way to Kandinsky's chromatic abstract works of 1910.
Kandinsky's companion during this time in Murnau was the painter Gabriele Münter, and they enjoyed the company of two other painter friends, Marianne von Werefkin and Alexej von Jawlensky. Münter remembered this period of the four of them working together as “very beautiful, interesting and joyful, with numerous discussions about art” (quoted in A. Witte, “Alexei von Jawlensky et Wassily Kandinsky; Rapports avec le neo-impressionnisme” in Signac et la liberation de la couleur, Paris, 1997, p. 260). Jawlensky introduced Münter and Kandinsky to the local tradition of glass painting, an art form that was to make a great impact on Kandinsky's art. His response to the simplicity and forcefulness of folk-art is apparent here in the way the reds, yellows, pinks and greens and oranges glow out from the darker colors surrounding them. Although a certain fidelity to first-hand observation is still predominant, the abstract element is beginning to assert itself over nature in the confident, resonant dabs and lines of pure color.
The early history of the work, after it left Galerie Der Sturm, is unclear, though in a recent letter to the owner of the present work Vivan Endicott Barnett has posited that, based on a note in Münter’s handwriting in the second edition of the catalogue for the 1912 Der Sturm exhibition, this work may have been purchased by someone in the Netherlands around 1912.
Treppe zum Schloss (Steps to the Castle) has been in the Sanders family collection since the early 1930s. According to the family's oral history, Paul F. Sanders, working as an art critic in the Netherlands at this time, saw the present work at an auction, and noticing that it was displayed upside-down, gestured for the art handlers to rotate it. The auctioneer, interpreting his wave for a bid, sold the painting to him.
Paul F. Sanders was trained as a composer and musician, and eventually became a music and art critic for the socialist paper Het Volk. His work as a journalist led to many interesting acquaintances, including Piet Mondrian, Georges Vantongerloo, Amedeo Modigliani and even Kandinsky himself. In the 1930s he worked on behalf of musicians who had escaped from Germany to the Netherlands.
The present work, in addition to having weathered the First World War under unknown circumstances, survived World War II and the threat of confiscation while in Amsterdam. Paul F. Sanders, through his connections in the art world, had become friends with Willem Sandberg—then an influential graphic designer and curator at the Stedelejk who would later become the director of the museum. With the rise of Nazism and the threat of “degenerate” art being seized (particularly when owned by successful Jews such as Sanders), Sanders asked Willem Sandberg to hide his collection of paintings, including the present work, at the museum where they might be safe.
Both the Sanders family and their collection survived, and in 1946 Sanders moved to New York as a correspondent for the resistance paper Het Parool (which he had helped found), bringing this painting with him across the Atlantic. After his retirement he remained active in New York as a chairman of the group of Dutch correspondents in the United States and the United Nations Correspondents’ Association.
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