Kinder vor der Stadt was painted in 1928, while Klee was teaching and working in the creative atmosphere of the Bauhaus in Dessau. This period was a pivotal one in the artist's career, as Will Grohmann explains: "During the five years that Klee spent in Dessau, from 1926 to Easter 1931, there appeared a large number of new effects that can be felt well into the Bern period. His work gained in range and intensity, and its favorable reception with the public encouraged him to ever greater boldness and directness of pictorial statement. Klee was now one of the few artists in a position to decide the future course of art. Every exhibition of his was eagerly anticipated, and critics measured him by international standards" (in Paul Klee, New York, 1954, p. 251).
Among the paintings that Klee made in Dessau was a series of architectural townscapes, of which Kinder vor der Stadt is a prime example. The painting depicts a trio of stick figures--a mother, a daughter, and an infant in a carriage--standing in front of a panorama of interpenetrating blocks. The composition is rendered in brightly colored lines set against a rich black ground, producing a strongly rhythmic character. Ann Temkin writes, "The pictures take on the ability of music to produce meaning from its own structural elements, to construct pattern and sign by means of repetition and interval, accent and rest" ("Klee and the Avant-Garde, 1912-1940," in ibid., p. 27). At the same time, the painting has the whimsical quality of a child's drawing or fantasy landscape, heightened by the absence of perspective. Commenting on architectural imagery in Klee's oeuvre, Werner Schmalenbach concludes, "With architecture one usually associates the static, stable, and constructional. Klee's architecture is alive, not static; unstable, not stable; and intuitive, not constructional. What holds good for construction and geometry in his work also applies to perspective: it is but one possibility among many" (Paul Klee, Munich, 1986, p. 54).
In 1939, the present painting passed from Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, then the sole agent for Klee's work in Europe, to the dealer Karl Nierendorf, a recent German emigrant to New York. Nierendorf had vied for the right to represent Klee in America with several other New York dealers, including Curt Valentin and Marian Willard. Nierendorf had gained the edge by 1938, writing in April of that year to the collector Duncan Phillips, "I made a contract with Klee such as no art dealer in the world would do. Regardless of what sales I might make, I guaranteed Klee an amount each year upon which he could live well and work without care for his material welfare" (quoted in C. Lanchner, "Klee in America," in Paul Klee, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1987, p. 101).
Klee explored the theme of a townscape with children in at least two other works from 1928: another black-ground composition in oil on gesso (Paul Klee Foundation, no. 4689; sold, Christie's, New York, 7 May 2002, lot 30) and a white-ground version in watercolor on paper (Paul Klee Foundation, no. 4600; Kunstmuseum, Bern).