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Improvisation No. 29 (The Swan)

Vasily Kandinsky, French (born Russia), 1866 - 1944

Made in Germany, Europe


Oil on canvas

41 3/4 x 38 3/16 inches (106 x 97 cm)

Curatorial Department:
European Painting

* Gallery 268, Modern and Contemporary Art, second floor (Kaiserman Gallery)

Accession Number:

Credit Line:
The Louise and Walter Arensberg Collection, 1950

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In his paintings and writings, Kandinsky expressed the belief that painting could be a form of visual music. This musical analogy led the artist to categorize his works as Impressions, Improvisations, or Compositions, depending on the degree of spontaneity or formalization.This Improvisation is built on subtle color harmonies applied with an agility that derives from Kandinsky’s rich experience working in watercolor.

Additional information:
  • PublicationTwentieth-Century Painting and Sculpture in the Philadelphia Museum of Art

    Kandinsky initially found the subject matter of his paintings in the folk art and fairytales of his native Russia and of Germany, his adopted country, especially in the landscape around Munich, where he lived and worked from 1896 to 1914. In 1909 he began to free color, shape, and line from the constraints of describing objects or suggesting readable narratives, increasingly dissolving the contours that separated discrete images in his pictures. Music was the prototype he adopted as he envisaged the possibility of abstract painting compositions organized to balance the allusive and the recognizable. Articulating these ideas in his treatise Concerning the Spiritual in Art, written the same year he completed Improvisation No. 29 (The Swan), Kandinsky carefully considered the equilibrium of abstraction and representation in his work.

    The musical analogy informed the way Kandinsky categorized his paintings, as Impressions, Improvisations, or Compositions, depending on the degrees of spontaneity and description they balanced. Improvisation No. 29 (The Swan), one of many Improvisations Kandinsky painted between 1908 and 1917, reads as a pulsating abstraction created from subtle color harmonies delicately applied in a manner that derives from the artist's experience working in watercolor. Within its assortment of invented forms and marks, it is possible to discern landscape elements such as plants and stones in the foreground and the presence of birds on the left. The artist's use of aerial perspective eliminates the horizon, flattening and distorting observed nature while also unifying the composition with an overall organic vibrancy. Whether or not the artist intended the subliminal, symbolic imagery to be decoded by the viewer—even as he hailed the revelatory power generated by pure form and color—is one of the abiding mysteries of Kandinsky's pre-World War I painting. Twentieth Century Painting and Sculpture in the Philadelphia Museum of Art (2000), p. 30.

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