Lyonel Feininger struggled with his identity and his loyalties: a native of New York City, he spent nearly fifty years in Germany where he was known as “der Amerikaner,” but subsequently struggled to reassimilate to life in the United States. He was an accomplished musician whose paintings in oil and watercolor hovered between abstraction and representation, and he was both a celebrated fine artist and graphic artist. Feininger was also a skilled photographer and woodcarver.

Feininger’s parents were successful musicians: his German-born father was a violinist and his mother a pianist and singer. The couple’s international touring schedule meant that their only son—christened Charles Léonell—and his two sisters were frequently left to the care of others. In 1887, Leo (as he was known) sailed for Hamburg, Germany, to advance his violin studies. However, he quickly shifted course, enrolling instead at the local technical school, where he excelled in drawing courses. In 1888, he was accepted at the Royal Academy of the Arts of Berlin and developed an affinity for caricature. Seeking to broaden his general education, he attended a Jesuit college in Liège, Belgium from 1890 to 1892, before spending six months in the life drawing class at the Académie Colarossi in Paris. Upon his return to Berlin in 1893, Feininger supported himself with illustration work, specifically cartoons and caricatures; in 1906, he created The Kin-der-Kids and Wee Willie Winkie’s World for the Chicago Tribune which ran the series in color on full pages in the Sunday edition. The following year, Feininger began to paint in oil.

Feininger showed six paintings at the 1911 Salon des Artistes Indépendants in Paris, a controversial exhibition that introduced him to Cubism. Over the next few years, he lived in Weimar, interacted with several German Expressionists, and in 1913 exhibited with Der Blaue Reiter, an avant-garde art collective. His black and white woodcuts—a medium he took up in the face of a shortage of painting supplies—of this period are characterized by deeply cut grooves and sharp edges. During World War I, he escaped the German draft because of his American citizenship.

Based on their mutual goal of incorporating art into daily life, Walter Gropius appointed Feininger as a “master” at the recently established Bauhaus in 1919, charging him with oversight of the printmaking studio. Gropius attributed the positive impact on Feininger’s students to their teacher’s “human qualities. . . . The modesty of his demeanor before even moderately talented students and his loving empathy . . . gave them pluck and respect.” Feininger was prolific in a variety of techniques, including woodcuts, lithography, and etching, making over four hundred prints during his lifetime. Simultaneously, he wrote fugues for the organ. When the school relocated to Dessau in 1926, he took the position of artist-in-residence and served as a student advisor rather than classroom instructor. In 1929, the Museum of Modern Art included seven Feininger works in its landmark second exhibition, Paintings by Nineteen Living Americans; two years later, the National Galerie in Berlin mounted a retrospective of his work.

As Hitler rose to power, the Bauhaus closed in 1933; four years later, the Nazis confiscated over six hundred works, including many by Feininger which were deemed “degenerate.” After teaching during the summer of 1936 at Mills College in Oakland, California, Feininger went back to Germany, but returned to the United States the following year, with only two dollars in his pocket. He told Alfred Barr, director of the Museum of Modern Art, “coming back after so many years of absence has been a strange experience. I went away a musician, I came back as a painter.” Feininger established a home in New York, where he fulfilled mural commissions for the 1939 New York World’s Fair. He also continued to execute semi-abstract city- and seascapes, canvases distinguished by “shafts of blurry light, falling on indistinct suggestions of church steeples, buildings, sailboats, and ocean waves.” In 1945, Feininger accepted an invitation from his former Bauhaus colleague Josef Albers to teach a summer course at Black Mountain College in North Carolina; his friend Walter Gropius led the architecture courses that same term. In the latter years of his career, Feininger was elected president of the Federation of American Painters and Sculptors and as a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters.

The Museum of Modern Art presented a dual retrospective of Feininger and Marsden Hartley’s work in 1944; in 2011, the Whitney Museum of American Art mounted a major retrospective, which included the full scope of Feininger’s work. The greatest influence on Feininger’s art was Cubism; as a result, much of his work is characterized by intersecting planes, often translucent, with many references to architecture and the sea. Cubism, Feininger believed, melded his musical interests with painting: “Cubism is a synthesis, but may easily be degraded into mechanism. . . . My ‘Cubism’ . . . is visionary, not physical.” In figurative work, there is often the quality of a caricature, due to his penchant for long-legged proportions. In every pursuit, Feininger maintained, “my artistic faith is founded on a deep love of nature, and all I represent or have achieved is based on this love.”