Painted at the height of Lyonel Feininger's involvement with the Bauhaus, Ostsee-Schoner (Baltic Schooner) is one of the first of the artist's works to bring his long experience in the painting of architectural space and form to bear directly on what was probably his favourite subject matter: ships and the sea.
Depicting a lone schooner, romantically isolated against a vast and near empty horizon, this painting embraces the light, wide-open space and subtle gradations of rich colour that Feininger discovered to his great delight while holidaying on the Baltic Coast. The picture was painted in the summer of 1924, when Feininger had travelled for the first time to the coastal Baltic village of West-Deep. Feininger's love of the area was such that after this visit, he would summer again in the same place every year until 1935, enjoying Deep's unique light and space and painting and indulging his favourite hobby of making and sailing model yachts with his sons.
'The sea is beautiful,' he wrote back to his wife Julia in excitement at this time, 'only it looks completely abandoned, such an expanse of water as I have never seen. It is as if never a vessel would pass by this stretch of coast - their course may be far beyond the horizon, so that nothing but a stream of smoke can be seen' (Lyonel Feininger, 'Letter to Julia Feininger,' West- Deep, June 28, 1924, quoted in June L. Ness, (ed.) Lyonel Feininger, New York, 1974, p. 132).
On this first visit to West-Deep it appears that it was in fact one especially spectacular evening sunset that ultimately inspired the application of rich architectonic streaks of colour and jutting striations of form that he later used to render the mysterious light and space of the sea and sky in such works as this and his great Bird Cloud painting of 1926. Noting an 'intensity of the colours' (that) can hardly be described' as if 'the entire universe' was 'steeped in an uncanny copper glow at the sunset hour', Feininger saw the colourful patterns and forms in the sea and sky as both 'weird' and 'awe-inspiring' with 'zig-zagging clouds' out of which 'blazed a ray of light like a sword stretching over half the sky' (Lyonel Feininger, 'Letter to Julia Feininger,' West- Deep, August 18, 1924, quoted in ibid, p. 132).
Immediately, it seems, he set about attempting to apply the strict geometry of his own near-abstract Cubistic style of painting to these equally abstract conditions of changing light, colour and open space. In this meticulous and brilliantly composed work, Feininger's lovingly crafted and highly architectonic schooner, situated at the centre of the canvas, acts as a compositional lynch-pin, holding together all the transient ethereality of the open space that fills the rest of the painting. With its angular deep-copper sails deliberately contrasting with the gentle green of the sea's pyramid-like waves, the ship becomes the spatial vortex of the painting, itself hovering between abstraction and figuration in the midst of a spectacular near-abstract arrangement of partially transparent, planar and spatial forms. Through the same near-abstract prismatic Cubist language that he used to define the vast sacred but enclosed spaces of his cathedrals, Feininger, who had been an admirer of marine art since his childhood, here masterfully succeeds in invoking all the romance and transcendent magic of a lone vertical ship sailing against the open and horizontal void of the sea.