The present portrait of a young girl with piercing green eyes is a remarkable example from an important series of heads that Jawlensky painted between 1910 and 1914. Distinguished by their intense colors, bold outlines, and formal stylizations, the pre-war heads are among the most powerfully expressive pictures of Jawlensky's career, "His first great plateau of personal achievement," to quote one critic (S. Hopps and J. Coplans, Jawlensky and the Serial Image, exh. cat., University of California Art Gallery at Irvine, 1976, p. 11).
Pictures such as the present work are important as a compendium of the various sources that influenced Jawlensky in the early part of his career. The nervous resonances and discords of color are an integral part of the German Expressionist tradition. The schematic rendering of form is indebted to Cézanne, while the high-key pigment and heavy brushwork is reminiscent of van Gogh--two artists whose work Jawlensky knew well from his sojourns to France in 1903-1907. The emphasis upon the eyes even suggests a certain degree of early Cubist inspiration, recalling the fixed and intense stares of Pablo Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon. Yet arguably the most prominent influence is the art of the Fauves, alongside whom Jawlensky had exhibited at the 1905 Salon d'Automne. The present work is particularly close in tenor to Henri Matisse's Fauvist portrait of his wife from 1905, La raie verte (fig. 1), in which the sitter becomes the key structural element in a semi-abstract composition of vibrant colors applied for expressive rather than descriptive ends--a conception that caused shock and consternation among contemporary viewers when the painting was first exhibited. In both Matisse and Jawlensky's portraits, the intensity of the palette is counterbalanced by a powerful serenity embodied in the subject's steady gaze, the firm set of her chin, even the incisive curve of her eyebrows.
Yet if Junges Mädchen mit den grünen Augen betrays a clear debt to the innovations of Jawlensky's contemporaries, it also bears the unmistakable stamp of the painter's own background and unique artistic spirit. With its jewel-like colors and powerful stylizations, the present painting is redolent with Jawlensky's memory of traditional Russian icons. A devout Orthodox, the artist had seen such representations throughout his childhood, and later had occasion to study them in the museums of St. Petersburg. In the present picture, the preternaturally large eyes and neutral ground heighten the effect of a medieval Madonna. As Jawlensky himself explained, "Every artist works in a tradition. Some take their tradition from the art of the Greeks, others from that of the Renaissance. I am Russian-born. As such my heart and soul have always felt close to old Russian art, to Russian icons, the art of Byzantium, the mosaics of Ravenna, Venice and Rome and the art of the Romanesque period... It was this art that gave me my tradition" (quoted in C. Weiler, Jawlensky: Heads, Faces, Meditations, London, 1971, p. 11). Elsewhere, he elaborated, "All these art forms caused in my soul a beautific vibration, for I sensed therein a profound spiritual language..." (quoted in P. Vergo, The Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection: Twentieth-Century German Painting, London, 1992, p. 151).
(fig. 1) Henri Matisse, Portrait de Madame Matisse (La raie verte), 1905. Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen.