Lyonel Feininger (1871-1958)
Lyonel Feininger (1871-1958)

Die Teufelssonate

Lyonel Feininger (1871-1958)
Die Teufelssonate
signed and dated 'Feininger 08' (upper right)
pen and black ink and brush and gray wash on paper
Image size: 13½ x 12 5/8 in. (34.3 x 32.1 cm.)
Sheet size: 17 1/8 x 15¼ in. (43.5 x 38.7 cm.)
Executed in 1908
Marianne J. Knox, Los Angeles (circa 1930s).
By descent from the above to the previous owner.
Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung, vol. XX, no. 8, 19 February 1911 (illustrated on the cover).

Lot Essay

Achim Moeller has confirmed the authenticity of this work.

Born in New York in 1871 to German immigrant parents, Lyonel Feininger returned to Germany at the age of 16 to study music. Although music played a vital role in his life, his choice was the medium of visual art and after his arrival in Germany, his parents, both being musicians, permitted him to study drawing. He went to study at the Allgemeine Gewerbeschule in Hamburg, followed by the Königliche Akademie in Berlin and had his first success in 1890, when he published some of his drawings with the Berlin based comic magazine Humoristische Blätter. By 1905, Feininger was an established and relatively famous local cartoonist and illustrator, publishing his drawings regularly with Harper's, Ulk (supplement to the Berliner Tageblatt), and Lustige Blätter.

In 1905, Feininger met Julia Berg in Berlin, and their torrid affair--upon falling in love they would not separate and never returned to their spouses--would be an important catalyst for his breakthrough into painting. "For the first time in my life," Feininger breathlessly wrote to her, "I have not been taken to account why and for what reason the water is violet instead of blue!" (quoted in H. Hess, Lyonel Feininger, New York, 1961, p. 28). A young painter herself, Julia was the first to not question his "violet water," Feininger told her, recognizing her appreciation for what seemed a strange and revolutionary use of color in 1905, the year in which the strident colors of Expressionism were just being introduced by the Fauves in France and by Die Brücke in Germany. Julia's encouragement was a revelation to Feininger, who was at age 34 beginning to contemplate freedom from the "serfdom of a caricaturist's life" (quoted in ibid., pp. 27-28).

Whatever Feininger's distaste for cartoon illustration, it was an assignment from the Chicago Tribune, contracting him to work from Europe, that enabled him to travel with Julia to Paris on 24 July 1906. As a 1912 letter recounted, his stay in Paris was a turning point in his career: "Then suddenly came the liberation! A contract with Chicago made it possible to move to Paris, and at long last get to know the world of art! I could think, feel and work for myself... Only during the last five years did I learn what art could and had to be for me! Since that time my awakening and development went quickly and strongly forward" (quoted in ibid., p. 38). If the "distortions and other traditional liberties of the cartoonist served as his pathway to the avant-garde of French painting," as Ernst Scheyer has observed, his finest work as a cartoonist dates to this period as well (in Lyonel Feininger: Caricature & Fantasy, Detroit, 1964, p. 103). Feininger became a critic of the contemporary scene in a series of caricatures published in the sophisticated Paris journal Le Témoin, whose policies freed him from the constraints of illustrating the ideas of others by offering him the opportunity to create independent drawings. Feininger's fluency in graphic design and accomplished draughtsmanship would clearly influence his painting practice, where he utilized the strident colors, distortions in size and shooting diagonals typical of caricature.

Die Teufelssonate, originally executed in 1908 and illustrated on the cover of Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung on 19 February 1911 (fig. 1), is a relic of this pivotal moment in Feininger's career. The attenuated depiction of the two central subjects and the peculiar intimacy of the scene anticipates the elongated inhabitants and implausible scenery of Feininger's "city at the end of the world" paintings of the following years, while the superior draughtsmanship and fine detail harkens back to Feininger's years of training and experience as an illustrator. The subject appears to be somewhat autobiographically determined, according to Feininger's recollections, as transcribed in a 1905 letter excerpt:

I remember so well: When I was a very small boy, four or five years old, in New York, we lived in a three story house all by ourselves: I used to sit in the dusk in the big dining room in the basement. The large stove gave heat also to the music room above. The register of the stove was open for me so that I might hear the better--then there I was--perfectly entranced, while my parents were playing, my father the violin, my mother accompanying him on the piano, music by Bach, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Schubert (in E. Scheyer, Lyonel Feininger: Caricature and Fantasy, Detroit, 1964, p. 13).

The figure of the looming violinist, perhaps an incarnation of Feininger's distant and sometimes disapproving father, would persist in Feininger's oeuvre, recurring in later paintings such as Der rote Geiger of 1934 (Hess, no. 359).

(Fig. 1) Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung, 19 February 1911.

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