Lyonel Feininger was born Léonell Feininger on July 17, 1871, in New York, to a German-American family of musicians. In 1887 he traveled to Germany to pursue a career in music but studied drawing at the Kunstgewerbeschule in Hamburg instead. From 1888 to 1892, he attended the Akademie der Künste, Berlin, and worked as a caricaturist for magazines both in the US (Harper’s Round Table) and Germany (Fliegende Blätter). In 1906–7, while staying in Paris, he worked for the French satirical weekly Le Témoin, and published the weekly comic strip The Kin-Der-Kids in the Chicago Sunday Tribune.
Upon his return to Berlin in 1907, Feininger began to work on easel paintings and drawings depicting architectural subjects and street scenes, as seen in Carnival (1908). After encountering Cubism and the works of the Orphist painter Robert Delaunay during a 1911 trip to Paris, Feininger created woodcuts and paintings of buildings and ships at sea, using semitransparent planes whose intersections produce prismatic effects. In 1913, at the invitation of the German Expressionists’ group Der Blaue Reiter, which had been founded in 1911 by Vasily Kandinsky and Franz Marc, he participated in the Erster deutscher Herbstsalon at Herwarth Walden’s Der Sturm gallery in Berlin, where he also had his first solo exhibition in 1917. At the end of 1918, he met Walter Gropius who asked him to teach at the newly founded Bauhaus school in Weimar. Feininger became the Bauhaus’s first form master and the head of its print workshop, and his 1919 woodcut, Cathedral, illustrated the school’s manifesto. In Weimar, he worked on paintings such as Church of the Minorities II (1926), whose structural order reflects the organizational principles of classical architecture and of his own musical compositions, especially his fugues for organ. In works like Gelmeroda (1913–36), a series of oil paintings based on the medieval church near Weimar, prismatic planes form dynamic constructions producing a sense of monumentality.
In 1924 Feininger founded the Die Blaue Vier (The Blue Four) group with his long-time friends and colleagues Kandinsky, Paul Klee, and Alexej Jawlensky. The group’s first exhibition in 1925 at the Charles Daniel Gallery in New York was followed by numerous other presentations in Germany and the US. After the Bauhaus moved to Dessau in 1925, Feininger gave up teaching but remained an artist-in-residence. From 1928 until his death, he also undertook experiments in photography. After his major solo exhibition at the Nationalgalerie in Berlin in 1931, Feininger painted nocturnal seascapes, often featuring architectural ruins. In 1937 he left Berlin to teach at Mills College in Oakland, then moved to New York and worked on cityscapes such as Manhattan (1940). In 1945 a year after his joint retrospective with Marsden Hartley at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Josef Albers invited him to teach a summer course at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Feininger died on January 13, 1956, in New York. Posthumous retrospective exhibitions of his work have been held at the Dallas Museum for Contemporary Arts (1963); Pasadena Art Museum, California (1966), Kunsthaus Zürich (1973); and Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (2011). The first exhibition of his photographs was organized in 2011 by the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.