Painted in 1909, Sitzende Frau dates from one of the pivotal moments in Alexej von Jawlensky's career, both in terms of his development as an artist and in terms of the events that occurred during this fascinating period. For it was during this time that Jawlensky, alongside various fellow artists including his fellow Russian and friend Wassily Kandinsky, founded the highly influential Neue Künstlervereinigung Munich, which was briefly to become one of the great cornerstones of German Expressionism. And that 'expressionism' can be seen in Sitzende Frau, be it in Jawlensky's deft use of Prussian Blue and various other tones to express a mood and ambience, in the stylised forms with which he has captured the titular woman or in the increasingly evident desire on the artist's part to reveal, through his pictures, not what he saw but instead what he felt.
The catalogue raisonné of Jawlensky's works, published in 1991 by Maria Jawlensky, Lucia Peroni-Jawlensky and Angelica Jawlensky, the keepers of the artist's archive, states that in 1909, 'his style entered a new stage of development, which reached a high-point in his large-size portraits especially' (M. Jawlensky, L. Peroni-Jawlensky and A. Jawlensky (ed.), opt. cit., London, 1991, p. 16). This is reflected in the fact that Jawlensky's portraits from this year are held by an incredible range of museums both within and without Germany, including the Van der Heydt Museum, Wuppertal, the Kunstmuseum, Dusseldorf, the Museum Wiesbaden, the Leopold Hoesch Museum, Düren, the Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart, the Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY.
There were a host of reasons for the fantastic blossoming in Jawlensky's painting during this crucial period. Now, the various examples and influences of the previous years were being cast aside, only the vital kernels being retained. Thus the importance of spirituality to Gauguin, of colour and structure to Cézanne, of pure colour to Matisse can all be faintly deduced in Sitzende Frau, yet clearly the overall style is wholly Jawlensky's own. 'My art is simply a meditation or prayer in colour,' Jawlensky explained, and this is evident both in the absorbing mood and content of Sitzende Frau and in the act of contemplation in which the woman of the title herself seems engaged (Jawlensky, quoted in C. Weiler, Jawlensky: Heads, Faces, Meditations, London, 1971, p.64).
In this sense, the legacy of the Orthodox icons of Jawlensky's native Russia appear to have the most important influence. For Jawlensky, as would become clearer in the coming years when series came to dominate his output, the ritual of painting was itself central to the act of creation of a picture. Likewise, as an object of contemplation, the painting is more than a mere picture, but serves a spiritual service too. Sitzende Frau, then, already prefigures the mystic heads and other such series that would later come to the fore. Indeed, the deliberate, stylised simplicity of the facial features in this picture heightens this effect, becoming a focus that is cleared of distractions and imbued with a universality that recalls icons and which lets the subject become a form of Everywoman or secular Madonna. The content of the picture is deliberately secular in appearance. Gone are the gold background and so fort of Russian icons, replaced instead by an engaging domesticity, allowing Jawlensky to celebrate the wonder of life, the beauty of existence and the mystery of the universe through the deceptively pared-back and homely figure of this woman on a chair. Sitzende Frau, then, is a form of everyday epiphany that allows the artist to express the harmony which lies in even the most overlooked corners of our lives.
The palette of this work appears to pay open homage to Cézanne, an acknowledged earlier influence whose precedent Jawlensky is here revisiting on his own terms. There is a clear parallel in terms of the palette and use of the red chair between Sitzende Frau and several of Cézanne's paintings, not least the celebrated Madame Cézanne dans un fauteuil rouge, now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, but which was at Vollard's in Paris during the early part of the Twentieth Century. This means that Jawlensky may even have been able to see it there during one of his trips in 1905 or 1906, an hypothesis that is made all the more enticing since even the shadows of the figures in Cézanne's and Jawlensky's pictures appear linked. Looking at the face of the Sitzende Frau and comparing it with contemporary photographs, one wonders if this is not Helene, Jawlensky's future wife, adding to the parallels. Certainly, there is an echo of her features, especially in the arched eyebrows.
It is a tribute to the importance of Sitzende Frau that it was formerly owned by the Wiesbaden collector Otto Henkell, who was in charge of his family's famous wine company, which still runs to this day. Henkell would later come to own Jawlensky's 1925 work, Abstrakter Kopf: Liebe, which is now in the Städtishe Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich; similarly, his widow, Katharina 'Käthe' Henkell, née Michel, was a member of the Jawlensky Gesellschaft, a subscription group supporting the artist; she later came to own a range of oils and works on paper by him.