Lyonel Feininger (1871-1956)
Lyonel Feininger (1871-1956)

American Navigation (Design for Mural, Marine Transportation Building, New York World’s Fair, 1939-1940)

Lyonel Feininger (1871-1956)
American Navigation (Design for Mural, Marine Transportation Building, New York World’s Fair, 1939-1940)
with estate stamp (on the reverse)
watercolor, gouache, black Conté crayon and pen and India ink on joined paper
22 x 99 1/8 in. (55.7 x 251.7 cm.)
Executed in 1938
Estate of the artist.
Private collection; sale, Karl & Faber, Munich, 8 June 1993, lot 737.
Private collection; sale, Karl & Faber, Munich, 26 May 1998, lot 686.
Leslie Sacks Fine Art, Los Angeles.
Acquired from the above by the present owner, January 2001.

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Lot Essay

Achim Moeller, Managing Principal of The Lyonel Feininger Project LLC, New York – Berlin has confirmed the authenticity of this work, which is registered under no. 1504-09-28-18. The work will be included in Lyonel Feininger: The Catalogue Raisonné of Drawings and Watercolors by Achim Moeller and Sebastian Ehlert.
Additional information for this entry was provided by The Lyonel Feininger Project, New York – Berlin.

In harmony with the marching tunes and hopeful lyrics of George and Ira Gershwin’s “Dawn of a New Day,” President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared the New York World’s Fair 1939/40 “open to all mankind” on April 30, 1939. Conceived in the aftermath of the Great Depression, the song, as well as the World’s Fair itself with its grand slogan “Building a Better World of Tomorrow,” was meant to symbolize 150 years of progress in the United States and reinvigorate the American spirit with an unshakeable optimism for a brighter future.
Feininger shared the same positive outlook for the future as his fellow countrymen, though the circumstances of the years prior to 1939 were all but sublime for him. In Germany, where he had lived for the most part since 1887, Feininger was a distinguished Master of the Bauhaus, a recognized and respected artist who was honored, alongside others, with a retrospective at the National Gallery in Berlin in 1931. When the National Socialists rose to power in 1933, they subsequently deemed Feininger’s art as “degenerate,” and included his works in their infamous exhibition of the same title. Thus, in June 1937, Feininger seized on the offer to teach a second summer course at Mills College in Oakland as an opportunity to leave Germany permanently and move back to his native New York.
Though an eminent and respected artist on one side of the Atlantic, Feininger was mostly unknown on the other. He had been working without any sales or commissions for almost a year when out of the blue, on January 21, 1938, Ernest Peixotto, the consultant for mural paintings at the New York World’s Fair, suggested he design the exterior walls of the “Marine Transportation Building.” A few days later the Committee on Architecture and Physical Planning approved the choice, and in March Feininger signed the contract to design two murals for $ 2,333.
The present work is an alternate design for the front of the building; ultimately a similar, but different one was used. Here an ocean liner in the center is flanked by two sailings ships, the latter reminiscent of the three-masted USS Constitution. The freighter to the far right is mirrored by a sidewheel steamer on the far left, which recalls the “Mary Powell” or “Queen of the Hudson,” once the fastest steamboat in the U.S. and the subject of two paintings by Feininger (The Queen of the Hudson [Mary Powell], 1940, Moeller 412 and The Queen of the Hudson, Mary Powell, 1947, Moeller 492, fig. 7). The vibrant colors of this drawing contrast with the muted blueish and yellowish hues of the final design; here, the ships sail on dark black and blue waters under a brilliant turquoise sky.
When on October 27, 1940 the doors of the World’s Fair closed and the sound of Gershwin’s “Dawn of a New Day” died away, the exhibition had cost more than $67 million and attracted more than 45 million visitors. Europe was in the midst of the Second World War, and the promise of a “better world of tomorrow” felt further away than ever before. For Feininger though, the fair kept its promise of a new beginning and a brighter future where, as in the words of Gershwin’s song, “better times [are] here to stay.”
--Sebastian Ehlert, Moeller Fine Art Projects The Lyonel Feininger Project, New York – Berlin

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