Max Weber was born in Russia and at age ten emigrated with his family to the United States, settling in New York City. From 1898 to 1900 he studied art at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn with the noted painter and printmaker Arthur Wesley Dow, and from 1905 to 1908 he attended art classes in Paris, including those at Matisse's newly opened academy. Returning to New York in 1909, Weber developed an important, though short-lived, friendship with Alfred Stieglitz, whose gallery, 291, promoted European and American modernism.
Weber is considered one of America's earliest modernists, and his long career witnessed many stylistic changes. Through the 1920s his work paid homage to such European artists as Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, and Henri Rousseau as well as to tribal African art. After 1930, when he developed a consistently identifiable style, one that was lyrical and Expressionistic, his imagery focused on romanticized landscapes, docile domestic scenes, and emotional religious themes. Throughout his career Weber exhibited consistently at galleries and museums, and in 1930 he was honored with a retrospective at the recently opened Museum of Modern Art.
From 1914 to 1918 Weber taught classes in art history, art appreciation, and design at the Clarence H. White School of Photography in New York. The experience of sitting in a darkened auditorium during a slide talk is amply conveyed in this pastel, about which he wrote: "A lecture on Giotto was given at the Metropolitan Museum. The late hastening visitor finds himself in an interior of plum-colored darkness . . . upon which one discerns the focusing spray-like yellowish-white light, the concentric, circular rows of seats, [and] a portion of the screen." In other paintings and drawings of the period, he evoked the illuminated stages at music and dance performances and the shimmering screens of the cinema. In a 1915 newspaper article he stated that his aim at the time was to express "not what I see with my eye but with my consciousness . . . mental impressions, not mere literal matter-of-fact copying of line and form. I want to put the abstract into concrete terms."