Biography

Ernest Fiene's artwork often focused on bringing out the humanity of a space while simultaneously deconstructing it into abstract shapes. Fiene was born in Elberfeld, Germany in 1894 to Henry and Maria Fiene. Though his passion and talent for art was noted by his family at an early age, he initially intended to become an engineer and apprenticed as a teenager with a mining construction company. His desire to avoid conscription into the German army soon compelled him to leave Germany. He fled initially to Holland, and then settled in New York City in 1912. Upon reaching the United States Fiene began to focus on his passion for art. He worked for a decorative painter until he could enroll in the National Academy of Design in 1914. Despite his hard work and great esteem for his teachers he never managed to finish a picture during his four year of education there.

Fiene went on to study at some of the most prestigious art institutions in New York giving him a broad range of influences and experiences. At the Beaux-Arts Institute of Design he studied the masters and was particularly influenced by works of Rembrandt, Daumier, and Breughel. Fiene began exhibiting with the assistance of his professors, including Robert Henri. He held his first solo exhibition at the McDowell Club. This exhibition proved very successful and gave him exposure to the New York art scene outside of the academic sphere. After exhibiting at the Society of Independent Artists in 1920, Fiene moved part-time to the artist colony in Woodstock, New York. In 1922, art scholar William Murrell wrote a monograph of him as part of what was to become his "Younger Artists Series". Fiene was the first artist profiled and he received considerable notice from the work.

After marrying his wife, Jeanette, Fiene decided to return to school and study at the Art Students League in New York City in an effort to expand his craftsmanship and modernize his artistic style. It was at the Art Students League that Fiene made connections with prominent lithographic printers George C. Miller and Charles C. Locke, who assisted in the distribution of his paintings through print. Fiene was beginning to establish for himself a series of art world relationships that allowed for increased exposure through more exhibitions as his style developed. In 1923 he had his first solo exhibition at the Whitney Studio Club, which later became the Whitney Museum of American Art. His success at that show lead to The New Gallery of New York becoming to be his exclusive art dealer and sold fifty-two works at his first show there. Finally having reached a point in his career where his paintings were in higher demand and he was fiscally solvent, Fiene took the proceeds from the show and built a bungalow for himself in Woodstock. 

Fiene continued to clarify and evolve his technique by applying decidedly modernist styles and themes to his paintings. He wanted to strengthen the attention to color and shape in his pieces, which can be seen in the way he depicted urban architecture. The fragmentation of modern life and industry were an inspiration for his work, and he accentuated these themes by using elements of realism and abstraction. When Fiene was asked to exhibit one of his lithographs in the new Whitney Museum of American Art Juliana Force, the first director of the WMAA, stated that she wanted "the best and the newest, in every sense of the word" [2]. Her choice of Fiene to be featured in this collection was a great honor.

As Fiene's career advanced from the late 1920s through the 1930s, he began a period of extensive travel both across the United States and abroad. He spent some time in French Canada. He traveled to Paris to work on his figurative and landscape skills at L'Academie de La Grande Chaumiere. While there he worked in the studio of his friend, the artist Jules Pascin. Despite there being many acquaintances and associates in France at that time Fiene deeply missed the inspiration he found in the New York landscapes. 

He returned to the United States and began teaching at the Westchester County Center in White Plains. Fiene continued to exhibit extensively, garnering a reputation as a truly modern painter of the city. He was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1932, which he used to travel to Italy and study mural painting. Again after some time abroad, he missed the inspiration of the American landscape and returned to New York.

The final decades of Fiene's career were frequented with visits to a diverse selection of American landscapes he wished to paint. At the same time he held several prestigious teaching positions across the county. His painting and teaching took him from Colorado Springs to Santa Fe and Taos, New Mexico, and back east to mining villages in Pennsylvania. Each of these locations gave Fiene a renewed love for his adopted country and its people, which he expressed through his art. He continued to exhibit his work all over the country, always keeping his studios in New York City. Some of the schools he taught at included the Cooper Union Art School, the Art Students League, and the National Academy School of Fine Art. The themes in his later pieces focused on American industry and science and its relationship with American landscape and culture. At the end of his life, Fiene served on numerous boards for art fundraising including the Tupperware Art Fund and the Artists Equity Association. In 1964 his long anticipated book Complete Guide to Oil Painting was published. On a trip to Paris in 1965, where he was working on various color lithographs, Fiene suffered a heart attack and died on August 10th. Ernest Fiene had a passion for the American condition, which he filtered through a modernist perspective in his paintings. His ambition and dedication to his craft can be seen throughout his extensive and inspiring career.

 

Written and compiled by Sonia Brand-Fisher


Footnotes:
[1] New Rochelle Standard Star, March 23rd, 1932
[2] Jeffrey Coven. "The Prints of Ernest Fiene: A Catalogue Raisonne." 2006