Ernest Fiene was born in Elberfeld, Germany in 1894. As a teenager, Fiene immigrated to the United States in 1912. He studied art at the National Academy of Design in New York City from 1914 to 1918, taking day classes with Thomas Maynard and evening classes with Leon Kroll. Fiene continued his studies at the Beaux-Arts Institute of Design in New York from 1916 to 1918, adding classes in printmaking at the Art Students League in 1923.
Fiene began his career as an artist in 1919 with his first exhibition of watercolors at the MacDowell Club arranged by his mentor Robert Henri. In 1923 the Whitney Studio Club mounted a large exhibition of his works. The following year he had an exhibition at the New Gallery in New York, which completely sold out all fifty-two works, including paintings, watercolors, drawings, and etchings. With the proceeds of sales from the New Gallery exhibition, Ernest Fiene and his younger brother Paul, a sculptor, built studios in Woodstock, New York in 1925.
In the early Twenties Ernest Fiene painted mostly landscapes of Woodstock and both the Ramapo and Hudson River Valleys. The first monograph from the Younger Artists Series was published on Fiene in 1922. Published in Woodstock, the series went on to include Alexander Brook, Peggy Bacon, and Yasuo Kuniyoshi. The book reproduced 1 illustration in color and another 27 reproductions in black and white. Around 1925 Fiene became fascinated with the intensity, excitement, and opportunities for color harmonies New York City offered as a subject. His paintings shifted to urban and industrial themes with architecture, industry, and transportation becoming his subjects.
By 1926 Fiene had attracted the dealer Frank K.M. Rehn, who gave him a one-man exhibition that year, which travelled to the Boston Arts Club. C.W. Kraushaar Galleries gave Fiene a one-man exhibition of urban, landscape, portrait, and still life paintings in 1927. Julianna Force, the director of the Whitney Studio Club and first director of the Whitney Museum of American Art, included two of Fiene’s paintings in a fall exhibition in 1928. The Whitney Studio Club showed Fiene’s paintings in a two-man exhibition with Glenn O. Coleman that year and acquired three of Fiene’s paintings. Also in 1928 Fiene became affiliated with Edith Halpert’s Downtown Gallery where he had an exhibition of 20 lithographs in the spring. Fiene sold his house in Woodstock in 1928 to spend more of his time in New York City.
With so many successful exhibitions, Fiene returned to Paris in 1928-29 where he rented Jules Pascin's studio and studied at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière. In France, Fiene painted both landscape and urban subjects developed from ideas influenced by Cubist geometry and the use of flat areas of broad color. Upon returning to New York in 1930, Fiene used this new approach to continue to paint New York skyscraper and waterfront subjects, as well as to begin a series of paintings on changing old New York based on the excavations for Radio City Music Hall and the construction of the Empire State Building. Frank K.M. Rehn Galleries exhibited this series, titled “Changing Old New York,” in 1931. Fiene also has solo exhibitions at Rehn Galleries in 1930 and 1932. Fiene’s oil paintings are exhibited at the Chicago Arts Club in 1930 as well.
Fiene was included in the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition Painting and Sculpture by Living Americans in December of 1931. Visiting New York, Henri Matisse saw the exhibition and called Fiene’s Razing Buildings, West 49th Street the finest painting he had seen in New York. Fiene had two mural studies from his Mechanical Progress series exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition Murals by American Painters and Photographers in 1932. Fiene sent View from my Window which depicts Fiene working on a lithograph stone while looking out his window to the newly completed Empire State Building to the Carnegie International in 1931. In 1932 Fiene participated in the first Biennial of American Painting at the Whitney Museum and his prints were included in exhibitions at the Downtown Gallery and the Wehye Gallery. In the same year, Fiene was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship to further study mural painting in Florence, Italy.
On his return from Italy in 1933 Fiene re-engaged himself in New York City life and won several public and private mural projects. Fiene resumed his active exhibition schedule, participating in two group exhibitions at the Whitney Museum and a one-man exhibition of recent paintings at the Downtown Gallery in January 1934. In 1933 he purchased a farm in Southbury, Connecticut, which added Connecticut scenes to his landscape subjects. This was also the year Fiene began to spend summers on Monhegan Island, Maine, where he painted seascapes, harbor scenes, and still lifes.
Fiene’s landscape paintings attracted numerous commissions as part of the American Scene movement. Through the fall and winter of 1935-36, Fiene took an extended sketching trip through the urban, industrial, and farming areas of Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Most of the twenty-four Pennsylvania urban and rural paintings from this trip were featured in an exhibition held at the First National Bank in Pittsburgh in October of 1937 by the Pittsburgh Commission for Industrial Expansion. Fiene said of these works that he formed rhythm, opportunity for space and color, and integrity in the Pennsylvania mill and furnace paintings. Fiene received the silver medal for one of the Pittsburgh paintings titled Frosty Morning at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1937.
The Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center invited Fiene to spend the summer of 1935 teaching there. He accepted and fit in painting trips through Colorado and New Mexico, including Taos and Santa Fe. In 1935, the Arts Center had an exhibition of his oils and watercolors. In August of that year the Denver Art Museum has an exhibition of thirty paintings and watercolors and purchased the painting Connecticut Hills, Winter. The Denver Art Museum held an exhibition of Fiene’s lithographs in 1937.
In 1937 Fiene also completed a mural for the Post Office in Canton, Massachusetts. In 1938 he completed a large four panel mural for the Department of the Interior Building in Washington, DC. Fiene's largest mural project was for the High School of Needle Trades, begun in 1937 and unveiled in 1940 after two and a half years of constant work.
Fiene had his largest exhibitions in 1940 with a total of 53 paintings and watercolors at his new dealer Associated American Artists. The exhibition includes Razing the Old Post Office, a New York subject which received a prize at the Carnegie International in 1939; Frosty Morning which received silver medal at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1937, and Spring Evening which received the W.A. Clark prize from the Corcoran Gallery in 1939.
Ernest Fiene participated in the American Tobacco Company’s series of tobacco paintings, commissioned from 1940 to 1942 by the company’s president George Washington Hill. American Tobacco sought the best artists of the time, including Ernest Fiene, Aaron Bohrod, Thomas Hart Benton, Doris Lee, George Schreiber and Frederick Taubes, to depict the entire tobacco production, from planting and harvesting to curing and auction. The paintings, which continued to arrive at American Tobacco until 1945, were used to decorate the company’s headquarters and in advertisements. American Tobacco described the commission as “a series of paintings of the tobacco country by America’s foremost artists.”
During the war years, much of Fiene’s commission work consisted of painting various phases of industry in relation to the war, such as the trips he took to Texas and Louisiana to record the operations of the oil industry. He also recorded the making of optical instruments at Abbott Laboratories in Corning, New York. These war industry paintings were exhibited in 1944 at the Associated American Artists gallery in New York City.
As a successful artist Fiene was in demand as a teacher. Fiene taught at Westchester County Center in New York from 1930 to 1931 and at the Cooper Union in New York from 1938 to 1939. At the Art Students League he taught a well-known Saturday class from 1939 until his death in 1965. Fiene also taught at the National Academy of Design from 1959 to 1964; he was elected an Academician there in 1952.
Fiene’s dealer during the 1950s and 1960s was Midtown Galleries in New York. In 1959 Midtown gave Fiene a solo exhibition of his most recent, more abstracted New York City subjects, which received glowing reviews. Fiene enjoyed widespread respect among the community of artists in America. Elected president of the Artists Equity Association in 1953, Fiene remained that organization’s president in an honorary capacity until his death in 1965.
He maintained a long time personal correspondence with the artists George Grosz, Jules Pascin, Gaston Lachaise, Stuart Davis, and Thomas Hart Benton.
Ernest Fiene’s work is included in numerous public collections, including the Brooklyn Museum; Art Institute of Chicago; Cleveland Museum of Art; Denver Art Museum; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts; and the Whitney Museum of American Art.