Howard Gilman Gallery, Metropolitan Museum of Art
October 13, 2011 – February 26, 2012
Rarely seen masterpieces from Alfred Stieglitz’s personal collection of photography will be presented at The Metropolitan Museum of Art from October 13, 2011, through February 26, 2012, in the exhibition Photographic Treasures from the Collection of Alfred Stieglitz. Stieglitz was not only a master photographer, but a powerful tastemaker and tireless advocate for photography as a fine art. In the first two decades of the 20th century, Stieglitz introduced the public to the best of artistic photography and modern art through his journal Camera Work (1902-17) and his “Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession” (1905-17), known to insiders simply as “291” for its address on Fifth Avenue. Stieglitz was also his gallery’s best client, supporting the artists he most admired by purchasing their work and consequently building one of the most impressive collections of early 20th-century art, including photography.
Featured in this exhibition are 48 photographs by James Craig Annan, Anne W. Brigman, Alvin Langdon Coburn, F. Holland Day, Adolf de Meyer, Frank Eugene, Gertrude Käsebier, Joseph Keiley, Heinrich Kühn, George Seeley, Edward Steichen, Pierre Troubetzkoy, and Clarence White. All the works are drawn from Stieglitz’s 1933 donation and 1949 bequest to the Metropolitan, which encompassed more than 600 photographs. Together, these photographs—many of which are the actual prints reproduced in the pages of Camera Work and exhibited on the walls of 291—constitute the finest gathering of Photo-Secession works anywhere.
“Pictorialism—as artistic photography was called at the time—has gone in and out of favor during the past century,” explained Malcolm Daniel, Curator in Charge of the Metropolitan’s Department of Photographs. “By 1933, when Stieglitz donated the majority of these photographs, he himself no longer favored the approach that he had championed so passionately a quarter century earlier. But today, as digital photography replaces analog and as scenes staged for the camera have become commonplace, the strategies and techniques of the Pictorialists have a renewed relevance, and the expressiveness and hand- wrought quality that Stieglitz first admired move us once again.” While many of the photographs share an aesthetic affinity with fin-de-siècle Symbolist painting and an exquisite attention to print quality, they represent a wide variety of subjects, from portraiture to nudes, charming still-lifes to brooding landscapes, and domestic idylls to biblical scenes.
Among the most notable portraits in the exhibition are Alvin Langdon Coburn’s image of the Nobel laureate author George Bernard Shaw lost in thought, Edward Steichen’s glamorous portrait of the fashionable socialite Rita de Acosta Lydig, and Gertrude Käsebier’s touching portrait of photographer Clarence White and his family. In each case, a perceptive and sensitive portrayal of the sitter is combined with a masterful use of photographic processes such as platinum, gum bichromate, or carbon prints that purposely distinguished these works from the products of commercial studios.
The Alfred Stieglitz Collection is particularly rich in early work by Edward Steichen, Stieglitz’s protégé and collaborator on Camera Work and the gallery program at 291. Eight works by Steichen are included, most of which are being shown at the Metropolitan for the first time in more than 40 years. In addition to portraits of Mrs. Lydig, Stieglitz’s wife Emmy and daughter Kitty, the Belgian writer Maurice Maeterlinck, and the model and singer Mercedes de Cordoba, two large painterly landscapes by Steichen are featured: Chestnut Blossoms (1904) and Storm in the Garden of the Gods (1906). Such works were intended as powerful demonstrations that photography could rival the color, scale, and expressiveness of painting.
Perhaps the most surprising photographs in the exhibition are F. Holland Day’s The Entombment and The Seven Words, both from an 1898 series in which the artist took on the role of Christ. In preparation, Day starved himself, let his beard grow long, and imported cloth and a cross from Syria. Even now, when theatrically staged scenes are common practice in contemporary photography, Day’s self-portraits as Christ can be unsettling.
On the opposite end of the spectrum from Day’s biblical contrivances is a group of photographs that are every bit as posed but portray an ingratiating vision of idyllic domesticity and youthful feminine grace. Gertrude Käsebier’s Blessed Art Thou among Women (1899), a portrait of Agnes Lee and her daughter Peggy, is an exquisite description of the Victorian ideals of motherhood and femininity, reinforced by the biblical title and a print of the Annunciation on the wall behind the figures. Clarence White’s Ring Toss (1899), a photograph highly reminiscent of William Merritt Chase’s painting of the same subject made three years earlier, and Morning—The Coverlet (1906) reveal a vision nurtured by and dependent on the time-honored customs and values of small-town life.
Photographic Treasures from the Collection of Alfred Stieglitz is organized by Malcolm Daniel, Curator in Charge, assisted by Monica Espinel, both in the Department of Photographs.