Old pictures

The contemporary interest in the past has produced a type of picture book in which the images are the text and the accompanying writing serves as illustration. Historical, sociological, and technical amplifications emanate from each picture. The eyewitness quality of the image is the essential in such books, whether photographs (from old negatives or daguerreotypes) or woodcut reproductions of drawings, such as the marvelous work by Winslow Homer for Harper's Weekly and other magazines between 1859 and 1874. The common theme of such books is the American Scene.

An outstanding early example was a book of the classical Mathew Brady Civil War photographs, reproduced in previously unknown clarity and beauty (''Divided We Fought,'' 1950) - the American Scene was here strewn with corpses. A more recently published picture album had a subtitle that caused me some uneasiness: ''What we were and what we looked like.'' My right to delight in the ''old pictures'' seemed to be called in question by this ''we.'' Was I part of ''us'' or must I read ''they''?

I was born in Germany and came to America in 1936, at the age of 26. Possession of the English language and of a United States passport facilitated my entry but did not in any other way mitigate my greenness on the Scene. I spent my first months in a state of exuberance caused less by my prospects, which were dim, than by the relief of breathing again after two years in Naziland.

Chief among my ''visible means of support'' were four crates filled with my paintings of the previous six years; a valuable although invisible property was my intimate acquaintance with the inconveniences of an unpredictable income and the virtues of oatmeal and bread and cheese as a diet. I knew that my freedom to dispose of my time and energies was more important than a comfortable standard of living. I was setting up for an untypical life in the metropolis of New York.

Not long ago I read a collection of letters and diary extracts written by Germans who had come to the US in the 19th century. With the exception of the first correspondent, General von Steuben, who came here to fight, of course, all others quoted in this book dealt only with the material and political aspects of life in this country. The last item is from 1886 and predicts that ''America will be shortly the most industrialized country in the world.'' This came from a German socialist who was not a fugitive (as most of the other contributors were) but was touring the country on a scouting mission paid for by his party. According to these predecessors, to come to America as an unknown artist and to hope to make a living out of one's art was a piece of folly not to be thought of. Upon the whole, this book tells more about the German than about the American ways.

In my search for the causes of the appeal the old pictures have for me, it occurred to me to look for an answer in the intertwinings of European and Western traditions in my ancestry. My great-grandfather Adolph Feininger was one of those who had fled from Prussian reprisals in 1849 with his little family, which included his five-year-old son, Karl (who was to become my grandfather); he had settled in South Carolina.

In our family, the arts begin to appear with Karl Feininger's showing talent that warranted his being sent to Germany at the age of 16 to study music in Leipzig. He became a professional violinist and music pedagogue and achieved success in later life; but his first public appearance must have been in the 10 th New Hampshire Volunteers Brigade Band, in which he enlisted in July 1864 under an assumed name. He was discharged a year later at Hilton Head, S.C. Of the service in the Union Army and of the alias, his only son remained in ignorance throughout his life.

These details came to light through my own family researches 20 years ago. To me, it was a relief to learn that my grandfather (whom I never knew) had been on the Northern side of the ''House Divided.'' My father had told me (and everyone else) often enough that ''Grandpa had been a Confederate soldier.'' It may be that Karl simply tolerated what seemed a logical assumption. But it may not be amiss to add that father and son saw each other for the last time in the late ' 90s.

The story of my father, ''Leonell'' (as he was then called,) being sent to Germany at the age of 16 to study music in his turn has been told so often that it needs only a glance: how he became an illustrator instead, making a living and, eventually, a name for himself with his satirical drawings; how, instead of one or two years, a sojourn of 49 years became his lot; how he turned to serious painting in 1906 and had, by 1919, become sufficiently famous to figure as one of the three co-founders of the Bauhaus in Weimar. He had become ''Lyonel'' long before this, and nobody, in pre-Hitler Germany, had worried about whether he was a German or an American ''expressionist.''

Unsympathetic critics of Lyonel Feininger's early paintings saw ''elements of Yankee burlesque'' in them and earnestly hoped that the artist would free himself from such native influences. But after my father's return to the United States in 1937, with his way to make all over again, he wrote me that he knew too well what he owed to Europe as a painter to begrudge the hardships of the moment. In Nazi Germany his work was defamed as ''degenerate art'' (Munich, 1937 ). In the US of 1940 the degree to which this same art was ''German'' had to be explained to the critics quite carefully.

Adolph, Karl, Lyonel - and now Lux: four stages in a transatlantic saga! I came because I wanted to be here, and I was able to maintain myself in an occupation that the experts had warned against. In fact, in the course of my economic struggles I received a piece of advice which I intend to quote, because it touches perhaps the very core of the quest. During a particularly low ebb in my finances I was trying to raise the wind with some commercial work, in which connection I obtained an introduction to a well-known designer of textiles, who had consented to meet with me. After looking at my samples somewhat angrily (as it seemed to me), he proclaimed himself as follows: ''You have talent but you are doing it all wrong! You can't impose your will on the industry like that!''

He said more, but it is not important, because very soon after this interview my entire professional life turned into a quite unexpected new channel which solved my problem. I became a teacher of art and of design at the college level. I have told the anecdote because I really believe that the man was right and meant well in so advising me. If I proved to be able to continue to keep afloat as an independent artist, it was not because I imposed my will upon an unwilling public but because I dodged its resistance and sneaked in under the wire.

Non vi sed saepe cedendo* is a motto from the old country, but it fits the purpose of the newcomer in this land to a nicety. When the truth of this dawned on me, I had the answer to my question whether I had a right to count myself as one of ''them.'' I believe that I do have that right, because I had chosen the form of society in which I wanted to live, and because I followed my star after I got here, without trying to tell the inhabitants of the New World how they ought to be. I took them as I found them, but I believe that, retired after 25 years of teaching, I have left them better than they were.

*''Not by force but by frequently yielding.''

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.