Skip to main content

Biographical Note | A Finding Aid to the Alfred Vance Churchill papers regarding Lyonel Feininger, 1888-1944 | Digitized Collection

Alfred Vance Churchill papers regarding Lyonel Feininger, 1888-1944

Biographical Note

Lyonel Feininger (1871-1956), also known as Léonell Feininger, was born in New York City in 1871 to German violinist Karl Feininger and American singer Elizabeth Feininger. He spent his childhood in New York City and became interested in art at a young age. Although born in New York, Lyonel Feininger lived and worked mostly in Germany.
In 1887 Feininger's parents took him to Germany to study violin, but he began taking drawing classes at the Hamburg Kunstgewerbeschule (College of Arts and Crafts) and subsequently moved to Berlin to study art at the Königliche Akademie under Ernst Hancke. During this time he met and befriended a fellow art student, Alfred Vance Churchill, who later became an art historian and curator. They would exchange letters and artwork for many years. For a brief time Feininger studied at the College St. Servais in Liège and with Filippo Colarossi in Paris, but returned to Berlin to study at the Akademie der Kunste with Karl Schlabitz.
Feininger's career as cartoonist started in 1894. He was working for several German, French and American magazines and illustrated two comic strips "The Kin-der-Kids" and "Wee Willie Winkie's World" for the Chicago Tribune. During this period he married Clara Fürst and they had two daughters, Lore and Marianne. He also exhibited drawings at the annual Berlin Secession and the Great Berlin Art Exhibition.
Feininger separated from his wife after starting an affair with Julia Borg. He and Julia traveled to Paris where he became greatly influenced by the French avant-garde. When they returned to Berlin in 1908, he gave up illustration in favor of painting. He and Julia were then married and they had three sons, Andreas, Laurence, and Theodore Lux.
Feininger became a member of the Berlin Secession and exhibited his paintings, primarily landscapes inspired by French cubism. Around 1912, Feininger became affiliated with the German expressionist groups Die Brücke and Der Blaue Reiter, and the Novembergruppe in 1918, where he met Walter Gropius. When Gropius established the Bauhaus in Weimar, Germany in 1919, Feininger became the master artist in charge of the printmaking workshop. He taught there and continued to develop his painting, and in 1925 he formed the Blue Four with Alexei Jawlensky, Paul Klee, and Vasily Kandinsky. When the Bauhaus moved to Dessau in 1926 he became an artist-in-residence and stayed there until it closed in 1933.
After the Nazi's declared Feininger's work "degenerate" in 1937, he moved to California where he taught at Mills College. He settled permanently in New York and had great success exhibiting his work in the United States, which culminated in a joint retrospective in 1944 with Marsden Hartley. Lyonel Feininger died in 1956 at the age of 84.