Jesuiten I is particularly rare and fine example of Feininger's early work. When Lyonel and Julia Feininger left Germany for the United States in 1937 they left behind various possessions and paintings which would only be reunited with the sons of of Lyonel Feininger after a lawsuit in 1984. Due to these circumstances, this work along with many others is not illustrated in the catalogue raisonné published by Hans Hess in 1961. Executed in 1908, Jesuiten I belongs to the period where Feininger first embarked on painting, and was still pursuing his cartoons as a form of income but not as his sole occupation.
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. However Feininger's contributions had to stop soon after when his father decided to send him to the Jesuit Collège Saint Servais in Lüttich/Liège, Belgium. Feininger spent a very enjoyable time at the Jesuit college, learning French and German, completing his education and continuing to draw. Though not older than the other boys in the school, he was already more experienced. He had already worked on his own and even held a certain degree of "fame" and over the following years, regularly published his drawings and cartoons with Harper's, Ulk (supplement to the Berliner Tageblatt), and Lustige Blätter.
1905 marked a decisive turning point in Feiniger's life. In this year, he left his wife and two daughters to be with the young painter Julia Berg, née Lilienfeld. In Julia, Feininger found a partner who could support his search for his own path in art. From a well-known illustrator/cartoonist he had turned himself into an unknown painter.
Feininger's letters to Julia at the time are a testimony of the dramatic transformation and outlook on his art and life. On September 2 1907, he wrote to her: "I am dreaming of very different light and tonal effects, very different means of translation than before but it is almost impossible to get away from reality as one is accustomed to seeing it. What one sees must be transformed in the mind and crystallised. I have so much preliminary work to do... Not for nothing does one start, a happy old man of 36, to paint and paint with the passion of a locomotive for eight to ten hours a day. But hope's beginning to dawn... if I don't go mad with sheer joy of life..." (Quoted in U. Luckhard, Lyonel Feininger, Munich, 1989, p. 21f.) Die Hochzeitsreisenden, also dating from 1908, is a celebration of his new found love and life with Julia. This work is typical for this period when the human figure plays a dominant part in his painting, but neither the figures, nor the settings in which they move pretend to be real.
Feininger's studies as a draftsman and his observation of a character and movement served as the basis which he developed his painings. His earlier painting still embraced certain qualities of his cartoonist aproach and tend to be narrative. No more where they destroyed or pierced by perspective; they could stand next to or above each other and play a sensitive game of values. Similarly, in the present painting, a play within the tones of colour and shape is articulated. As in his cartoons, Feininger deliberately uses 'unnatural' colours, like those being used by the architects and decorators of art nouveau. The olive, pale greens, mauves, and pinks are colours that correspond with the feeling of the time, yet here, he juxtaposes them in a more violent way to convey a sense of disharmony. The figures with their coloured outlines are set into the picture like cut-outs. They are the principal element, and the predominant impression is of the grotesque rather than of dynamic motion.
Jesuiten I is part of a larger corpus that deal with the same subject matter. The bravura displayed in this work portraits a historic event which Feininger first put into a caricature (L'Exode) for the magazine Le Témoin (fig. 1). Feininger comments on recent French anticlerical events whereby the separation of church and state had led to the expulsion of the Jesuits. Feininger had known the Jesuits well from his own education and here depicts them without rancour and without love. Shown as they leave, they are all depicted in profile, the first of which is Feininger himself. The speedy movement, inherent to the caricature is a quality that Feininger manages to transfer into his oil paintings. In Jesuiten I Feininger manages to transcend the anecdotal by means of innuendo. The title still refers back to the historical event, yet this painting clearly tells a different story. Divorced from its original context, here Feininger juxtaposes the prostitute with the Jesuits and plays a compositionally challenging game between her provocative action and the Jesuits' response.
Only by looking at literary stimulus can we answer the question as to where Feininger's inspiration for these paintings might have originated. Feininger had read works by Jens Peter Jacobsen, Hermann Bang and Frank Wedekind. Wedekind's Hidallah (1904) was a play about the hypocrisy of bourgeois morals, the effects of which Feininger had suffered in his relationship with Julia. In this play, Wedekind satirizes both clerical celibacy and the condemnation of prostitutes as immoral and it is very likely that Feininger was familiar with this work. H. Hess pointed out that nonsense and fantasy often coexisted in Feininger's mind and that this dual shift frequently led to wonderfully and surprising results. Indeed, most of Feininger's work was informed by the thought: "How would the world appear if it were slightly different?" (H. Hess, Lyonel Feinigner, London 1961, p.19). Again and again, in various paintings different variations of masquerade reappear. In Jesuiten II and Jesuiten III, Feininger develops the same composition with a different painterly language and expression. Both the latter painings were executed after Feininger's highly and influential visit to Paris in 1911. In a letter to his friend Churchill on 13 March 1913 he recalled:"In 1911 my studies had brought me to the critical state where imitation of Nature is imminent, but in that spring I had gone to Paris for two weeks and found the art world agog with Cubism - a thing I had never heard even mentioned before, but which I had already, entirely intuitively striven after for years (Quoted in H. Hess, op.cit., p. 52)