Alexei von Jawlensky
Biography, Paintings of Russian Expressionist Painter.

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Head of a Woman (1910)
Museum of Modern Art, NY. One of the
greatest 20th-century paintings
and a sublime illustration of how
Jawlensky used colour in painting.

Alexei von Jawlensky (1864-1941)


Early Life
Munich:New Artist's Association
'Heads' Series of Paintings
Blue Rider
Degenerate Art

NOTE: For analysis of works by expressionist painters like Alexei von Jawlensky, see: Analysis of Modern Paintings (1800-2000).

Head of a Woman 'Medusa' (1923)
Museum of Fine Arts, Lyon.


One of the best portrait artists of the Expressionism school, and ranked among the great modern artists from Russia, Alexei von Jawlensky, was classically trained at the Academy of Fine Arts in St Petersburg, under Ilya Repin (1844-1930). Jawlensky however was not destined to develop into a traditional artist, and instead became one of Europe's leading Expressionist painters. In 1896 he moved to Germany and became a founding member of the New Munich Artist's Association. Later he became one of the five core artists in Der Blaue Reiter - one of the most influential groups involved in German Expressionism. Known as the "Russian Matisse", Jawlensky vivid colourism and passionate brushstrokes were key features of his art. Early influences came from Henri Matisse, Wassily Kandinsky and Van Gogh. Jawlensky is best known for his portrait art, notably his sequences of Heads, including Mystical Heads (1917-19); Saviour's Faces (1918-20) and later a group of abstract/ constructivist Heads. His best known expressionist paintings include Landscape Murnau (1909, Museum Kunst Palast, Dusseldorf), Portrait of the Dancer Alexander Sakharov (1909, Lenbachhaus, Munich), Head (1910, Museum of Modern Art, New York); Head of a Woman (1911, Gallery of Modern Art, Scotland), Abstract Head (1928, private collection), and Schokko (1910, private collection). Jawlensky's expressionism is instantly recognizable and, along with that of Modigliani, ranks among the most sought after work from the early 20th century.

Still Life with Flowers and Fruit
(1910) Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin.
By Alexei von Jawlensky.

For top creative practitioners, see:
Best Artists of All Time.

For biographies of other modern
painters from Russia, see:
Mikhail Vrubel (1856-1910)
Symbolist painter.
Abram Arkhipov (1862-1930)
Genre painter, critical realism.
Valentin Serov (1865-1911)
Russia's greatest Impressionist.
Kasimir Malevich (1878-1935)
Founder of Suprematism.
Marc Chagall (1887-1985)
Painter, decorative artist.
Chaim Soutine (1893–1943)
Expressionist figurative painter.

Paintings by Alexei von Jawlensky
are widely available online
in the form of poster art.

For an idea of the pigments
used by Alexei von Jawlensky, see:
Colour Palette Nineteenth Century.

Early Life

Jawlensky was born into a noble Russian family. He grew up on the family estate near a town called Torzhok, which was situated on one of the main routes to Moscow. The area was known for its tradition of gold embroidery and was long used as a location for military garrisons. The young Jawlensky showed an early interest for painting and drawing, but was expected to join the military. At the age of 18 he entered the military academy in Moscow and, on completion, was garrisoned in St Petersburg. Here, in the vibrant city of culture, he attended classes at the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts, under one of the greatest Russian artists, Ilya Repin (1844-1930). Repin was a realist painter and one of the leading figures in Russian Painting of the 19th-Century. Under Repin's guidance, Jawlensky became skilled in traditional oil painting and drawing, producing figurative and still life work. However, his interest lay further west, in the revolutionary developments in modern art taking place in Germany and France. In 1896 he met the daughter from a local noble family, Marianna von Werefkin, who was also an artist. She encouraged him to quit the military service and forge ahead with a career in fine art.



Munich: New Artist's Association

Jawlensky married Werefkin, and in 1896, the young couple set out for Munich, then one Europe's most vibrant artistic communities. They studied at the studio of Anton Azbe (1862-1905), a Slovene realist whose school was popular with Eastern European students. Here, Jawlensky met Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), another Russian painter whose theories on art proved a great influence on the new arrival. At the time Kandinsky was moving away from Realism, towards a more expressive Abstract art form. In 1909 Kandinsky formed the Neue Kunstlervereinigung Munchen, (New Artist's Association, Munich), a group which predated the Blue Rider Group, and is considered one of the first secessions from traditional art to modern art in Germany at the time. Jawlensky and Marianna became members as well as Gabriele Munter, Adolf Erbsloh and Alexander Kanoldt. Together they exhibited in 1909, 1910 and 1911 at the Moderne Galerie in Munich. Jawlensky also spent time during this period working with Henri Matisse. The French painter with his bold colours and fearless brushstrokes was a huge influence on his Russian contemporary. Jawlensky also spent time with other key figures within the expressionist movement, including the Swiss painter Paul Klee and the German expressionist Franz Marc.

'Heads' Series of Paintings

From about 1910 onwards, Jawlensky started his series of Head paintings. These were up-close and personal portraits of (primarily) women whom he knew in his circle. His initial paintings show women wearing wide brimmed hats, but gradually after spending some time with Matisse and Emil Nolde, he stripped the portraits of all apparel and focused solely on the form of the head. In Head of a Woman (1911, Gallery of Modern Art, Scotland), the artist's violent colours and passionate brushstrokes can be compared with paintings by Andre Derain.

By 1911 he felt his work was maturing as an artist, and it has been suggested that his most powerful paintings were created in this period, up to 1914. The majority of Jawlensky's Head paintings are of women, and his work arguably represents a continuation of religious Russian art, like Russian orthodox icon painting. Between 1917 and 1919 Jawlensky created another series of Heads known as the Mystical Heads. Between 1918 and 1920, his next series was called Saviour's Faces, which have religious overtones. By the 1920s and into the 1930s his Heads became more abstract, reduced to a few lines and forms. Examples include Head of a Girl (1918, Merzbacher Collection, Switzerland) and Abstract Head: Red Light (1930, Wiesbaden Museum). His later abstract Heads (Constructivist paintings) are popular poster prints today.

Blue Rider

In 1911, the Munich New Artist's Association gave way to the formation of Der Blaue Reiter group (Blue Rider), a successor to the Dresden/Berlin group Die Brucke. Aside from Kandinsky, Jawlensky and Marianne, other members included Franz Marc (1880-1916), Paul Klee (1879-1940) and August Macke (1887-1914), as well as Gabriele Munter (1887-1914), Lyonel Feininger (1871-1956) and Albert Bloch (1881-1961). The group either derived their name from a 1903 painting by Kandinsky, or from Franz Marc's love of horses and Kandinsky's love of the colour blue. As a group they believed in the promotion of modern art and in the spiritual and symbolic associations of colour. They were also influenced by medieval art and primitivism, as well as the move towards abstraction, led by the Cubists, Fauvists, Nabis and Rayonists, and exhibited with the Knave of Diamonds in Moscow, in 1910, but not the more Russified Donkey's Tail artists. The group disintegrated on the outbreak of World War I, and some of its members were killed in action. In 1914 Jawlensky became a member of the Neue Munchner Sezession, which had held its first exhibition in 1898. Secession artists were concerned mainly with exploring the possibilities of art outside the confines of academic tradition. They wanted to create a new style that relied nothing on historical influences. However, Jawlensky's membership was short-lived as he was expelled from Germany during the war years, and fled to Switzerland. After the War, the remaining members of the Blue Rider group (Kandinsky, Jawlensky, Klee and Feininger), came together under the umbrella name Die Blaue Vier (the Blue Four), in order to sell their pictures into Mexico and America (1924). For more about the contribution of Alexei von Jawlensky to expressionism, please see: History of Expressionist Painting (c.1880-1930).

Degenerate Art

From 1929 onwards Jawlensky became increasingly debilitated by arthritis. His paintings in public collections in Germany were confiscated in 1937, as part of Hitler's pogrom on modern art. Two of Jawlensky’s paintings were included in the Nazi exhibition of Degenerate Art, held in Munich that year. By 1938 he was completely paralyzed from arthritis, and died in Wiesbaden in 1941.


Although categorized as an Expressionist, his symbolic and expressive use of bright colour also reflect the attributes of Post-Impressionism, as in works by Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin, as well as his native Russian character and mood. In 2003, Jawlensky's painting Schokko mit Tellerhut sold for $8 million at auction, and in 2008 another work sold for $18 million. Today, paintings by Alexei von Jawlensky can be seen in a number of the best art museums around the world.

• For more biographies of Russian expressionist artists, see: 20th Century Painters.
• For details of art periods/movements, see: History of Art.
• For more information about modern art in Russia, see: Homepage.

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