Painted in 1915, at the height of Feininger’s Expressionist period, Jesuiten III is characteristic of the style that set him apart from his contemporaries. The composition, with its linear rhythm and fragmented figures, also bears witness to the strong influence of Cubism. Indeed, in May 1911, Feininger spent two weeks in Paris where he saw the Cubist works of Picasso and Braque. Learning from their example and from that of his fellow German expressionist colleagues such as Kirchner, Feininger developed a style that enabled him to ‘build’ a picture piece by piece using a brilliant color palette.
Feininger’s experience as a graphic artist gave him a creative advantage when it came to rendering dimension in his painting (see fig. 1). He was extraordinarily capable of conveying spatial depth without being reliant upon gradations of color or excessive details. With its pictorial style and its color scheme, the present work represents a synthesis of the various developments that shaped the artist’s oeuvre. Like his future Bauhaus colleague Kandinsky, Feininger believed in the association of music and color and in the importance of fantasy in art. The present work is a reflection of reality as the artist sees it, imbued with his own experiences and perceptions.
Feininger attended the Jesuit Collège Saint Servais in Liège, Belgium, which explains his interest in the subject of this picture. His choice of a vibrant palette, the combination of yellow, red, mauve and green, add depth to the composition. In Jesuiten III, Feininger uses the same four figures as in Jesuiten I, 1908, and Jesuiten II, 1913 (see fig. 2 and 3). Achim Moeller has kindly informed us that this work is also related to a watercolor of 1908, Untitled (Lady and Clerics). The present composition, however, reflects the advances in his stylistic development. The figures are much more abstract, and their gestures are exaggerated by the use of geometric shapes. The composition is tighter, the planes more prismatic and the colors more vibrant. Each figure stands in relation to the other three, creating an engaging narrative within the picture. Feininger has moved away from the elongated figures in Jesuiten I to a more avant-garde and Expressionist approach. According to Ulrich Luckhardt, Jesuiten III is “formally the most mature and with its structure of rhythmic arcs is also the most complicated. The painting is composed not through the interpenetration of individual forms but by means of their adjacent arrangement. More than in any other composition, Feininger here creates spatial energies that combine linearity and volume. In the dynamic tension and complementary use of color, the true subject—the prostitute, whom the clerics are crowding around—recedes into the background” (Ulrich Luckhardt, op.cit., p. 90).
Through the pictorial devices of perspective and figural distortions, as well as eccentricities of color, the artist transforms the scene into a world where the strange and the familiar are inextricably linked. In his monograph about the artist, Hans Hess explores Feininger’s artistic process, “Feininger had no theory of painting; he had that sense for contemporary reality that makes a painter an artist of his time. His thought was as much involved in his work as were his eyes. He was trying to obtain clarity, and he analyzed his own work, but he was not working in accordance with a theory, either his own or borrowed. The laws he obeyed were the laws of the picture as it revealed its structure, the laws of nature as he transposed them into his art. He did not impose a law of his invention; he transposed the laws that he observed. He revealed patterns; he did not invent them” (Hans Hess, op.cit., p. 68).
Describing Jesuiten III, Hess further explains “In the new picture, the sardonic subject of a Jesuit watching a lady of great elegance pass in the street has been modified. The colors are strong—cardinal mauve, red, and yellow—on green ground; the geometrical curves flow freely and rhythmically. The picture remains a rarity in Feininger’s work: an attempt to master the curve. In the new picture there is much sarcasm and doubt, much irony and distance” (Hans Hess, op.cit., p. 72). The world Feininger creates becomes real, and as Hans Hess notes, “There is no difference between the reality of the picture and the reality of the events of this world. (…) From his understanding that the creative process reveals valid reality the painter draws the strength of his conviction. Whatever he forms becomes real, because the forming of reality in the picture is identical with the process of the formation of actual reality. In the picture the painter forms his vision of the universe” (Hans Hess, op.cit., p. 71).
Fig. 1, L'Exode, caricature in Le Témoin, no. II, 1906
Fig. 2, Lyonel Feininger, Jesuiten I, 1908, oil on canvas, Private Collection
Fig. 3, Lyonel Feininger, Jesuiten II, 1913, oil on canvas, The Saint Louis Art Museum, Bequest of Morton D. May, USA
Fig. 4, Lyonel Feininger, in 1907
Oil on canvas
29 1/2 by 23 1/2 in. 75 by 60 cm
Hans Hess, Lyonel Feininger, London, 1961, no. 135, illustrated p. 183
Ulrich Luckhardt, Lyonel Feininger, Munich, 1989, no. 21, illustrated p. 91
Trust under the will of Julia Feininger (T. Lux Feininger)
Acquired from the above by the present owner