Off To Work We Go: A Memory of the Working Class During WWI

The Green Bridge II, 1916. Oil on canvas, 49 3/8 x 39 ½ in. In the North Carolina Museum of Art.

Lyonel Feininger, an American artist living in Berlin, painted The Green Bridge II in the middle of World War I. Feininger uses elements of cubism to provide an impression of a working-class neighborhood in Paris.

The dominant image is the subject of the painting’s title – the green bridge. The curving arch of the bridge draws my eye downwards, first to a gas lamp glowing orange and then to a woman in the corner. Following the gaze of the woman, I look up and down the line of people walking on the boulevard. The dark tree on the left catches my eye next, and I follow its length to the top of the bridge, thus completing a circle around the painting. This circular motion is repeated on a smaller scale in the brush strokes and curving geometric forms used to depict the people and the place.

Four of the five figures on the bridge seem to be walking across, while one is gazing over the edge at the people passing underneath. This figure both aids and impedes the circular path my eye takes: he provides a link to move across the bridge to the figure on the far right, but he also faces forward and looks down to the line of people intersecting the arc of the bridge, drawing my eye down. Towards the front of that line is a figure holding a pickaxe. The majority of people wears subdued colors – blues, browns, greens, and purples – and is swathed in many layers of clothing in gradating colors. The buildings as well are a subdued purple-red color. These serious and restrained colors are punctuated by light sources glowing yellow and orange – the gas lamp on the right and the light from an open door on the left.

The sweeping arc of the bridge, the circular path taken by the eye, and the curving brush strokes indicate movement. This movement animates a picture that might otherwise be seen as static and cold. While I’m taken on a circular path around the painting, this path is disrupted by several figures that draw attention to the line of people in the center. The bridge may be the most dominant image, but it surrounds and thus highlights the people underneath it – the working class. Constructing the painting in this way allows for constant and continual movement. There is always something leading the viewers’ eyes to another object, and every object is important. The subdued colors, particularly the icy green, the bare tree, and the solitary figures wrapped in layers give the painting an air of melancholy – but it is not somber. The light sources provide warmth, and the movement makes it lively.

As an admirer of French culture, Feininger visited Paris several times before the war. His painting depicts a form of reality that can’t have been true for European cities during the war; perhaps, then, he pairs subdued colors and circular arcs to reconcile the conflict of the war and his memories of a happier time.

Feinringer, Lyonel. The Green Bridge II. 1916. North Carolina Museum of Art, North Carolina. ArtNC. Web 18 Sept. 2013. <;.

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