Gertrude Kasebier: Two Exhibitions In Delaware

“The Heritage of Motherhood,” 1904, shows tragic side of maternity, depicting Gertrude Kasebier’s friend, poet Agnes Lee, who had just lost her cherished daughter. It reflects the use of photography to convey emotion, with the grieving mother on a desolate shore serving as a generalized symbol. University of Delaware Collection, gift of Mason E. Turner Jr, 1994.

WILMINGTON and NEWARK, DEL. — Women have had a place in photography from the moment of its creation, and portraiture has often been their specialty. The latter could be done in one’s own home, and women were assumed to have a certain sensitivity to sitters. Female photographers also played leading roles in the Pictorial movement, which established photography as an art.

The leading woman photographer of turn-of-the-century America was Gertrude Kasebier (1852–1934), a Midwesterner who flourished in New York’s competitive art world. A committed Modernist, Kasebier (pronounced KAY-za-beer) created images that were confidently designed, beautifully lighted and printed using innovative techniques.

The manner in which her photographs were used to promote The Eight — a celebrated breakaway group of painters — and their revolutionary 1908 exhibition is the subject of a fascinating exhibition, “Gertrude Kasebier’s Photographs of The Eight: Portraits For Promotion,” on view at the Delaware Art Museum through July 7. Organized by the museum’s curator of American art, Heather Campbell Coyle, it comprises Kasebier’s insightful portraits of the adventurous Eight alongside images from the press and comic drawings made by the artists as part of their self-consciously modern marketing strategy.

Kasebier came a long way to undertake this project. Born Gertrude Stanton in Iowa and raised in Colorado, she came to New York to attend school and college, and married Edward Kasebier, a shellac importer. In her late 30s as a Brooklyn housewife with three children, she began to study portrait painting at Pratt Institute. She eventually took up photography, working with a chemist and a professional photographer to learn intricacies of the trade.

Kasebier opened her own portrait studio in New York at the age of 45 in 1897. There she sought to capture the individuality of each sitter, pioneering in likenesses that resembled works of art by dispensing with traditional props, scenic backdrops and contrived poses in favor of relaxed poses in natural light in simple settings. Kasebier’s prints were never merely black and white. Instead, they offered a range of color quality, tone, atmosphere and values. She used the platinum process to achieve a sense of velvety depth and different color effects.

Although subjected to considerable abuse and ridicule for her unorthodox techniques, Kasebier participated with great success in important photography exhibitions at a time when photographers, artists and critics were exploring the artistic potential of the medium. Her rise to prominence, according to the late William I. Homer, a University of Delaware art historian, “was nothing short of meteoric.”

Kasebier became a popular personality, not only because her portraits were much admired, but also because she established friendships with the city’s artistic elite, ranging from architect Stanford White to actress Ellen Terry. The quality of her work was recognized by photographer and art impresario Alfred Stieglitz, who as early as 1899 called her “beyond dispute, the leading portrait photographer in the country.” He invited Kasebier to join his highly selective Photo-Secession group and chose her to be the featured photographer in the inaugural issue of his influential magazine, Camera Work, in 1902.

Her prominence and the manner in which she bridged the worlds of fine art photography and professional portraiture made Kasebier a logical choice when The Eight, a loosely organized cabal of rebellious painters led by the charismatic Robert Henri, asked her to create emotive and atmospheric portraits that put faces to their artistic insurrection. The photos were an important part of a savvy, aggressive effort to stir media interest, leading up to the famous exhibition in 1908 at New York’s Macbeth Gallery.

Their show, rebelling against conservative art critics and juries at the hidebound National Academy of Design, showcased the paintings of Henri, Arthur B. Davies, William Glackens, Ernest Lawson, George Luks, Maurice Prendergast, Everett Shinn and John Sloan. Their styles were diverse, but they were united in a common interest in portraying city life among working-class inhabitants — paintings that up until this time had found little favor with art critics and exhibition juries, which found such subjects coarse and unappealing.

The range of Kasebier’s portraits fit the personalities of the sitters. Six of the eight poses are three-quarter length, while Shinn and Sloan are seated in full-length images. Some of the painters look at the camera while others do not.

The reserved Glackens, for example, appears formal and wary, while the pugnacious Luks presents a confrontational persona. Davies’ portrait mirrors the dreamy landscapes he painted, and in Lawson’s his amiable demeanor comes through.

Kasebier’s elegant, individualized, perceptive portraits, free of studio paraphernalia and traditional poses, were often printed in publications alongside their works. They were featured in newspapers and magazines with headlines reading: “Secession in Art,” “New York’s Art War and the Eight Rebels” and “A Rebellion in Art.”

The enthusiastic press coverage culminated a yearlong campaign orchestrated by the artists to promote their work and their bold ideas about modern American art. While a few reviews were negative, others praised the “new men,” declaring The Eight “representative of the best that America has yet achieved in painting.”

Crowds poured into Macbeth’s galleries during the course of the 13-day exhibition of 63 paintings. Seven works were sold, fetching nearly $4,000. The exhibition, abetted by Kasebier’s soulful portraits, became a watershed in the history of American art. Responding to nationwide interest, The Eight organized a traveling show that visited nine cities over the next two years. In spite of their extraordinary success, The Eight never exhibited as a group again. Rather, they became involved in other groundbreaking projects, notably the Armory Show of 1913.

Fortuitously, a splendid exhibition at the University of Delaware’s Old College Gallery in nearby Newark, “Gertrude Kasebier: The Complexity of Light and Shade,” on view through June 28, documents the rest of the photographer’s oeuvre. Curated by Stephen Petersen, it includes expressive views of mothers and children, family photographs, landscapes, portraits and other images that round out Kasebier’s career. They underscore the high quality and unconventional nature of her nonportrait work.

The exhibition makes clear why Kasebier is considered one of the most important Pictorialist photographers — emphasizing the painterly qualities of the medium — and why her work earned record prices for artistic photography at the turn of the Twentieth Century. It reinforces understanding that Kasebier grasped photography’s artistic heritage, expressed in photos of marriage, motherhood, children and family life, as well as her inner vision of beauty and human psychology.

From the start, Kasebier maintained that photography should be a fine art rather than merely a recording of visual facts. She worked with painstaking care to get a photograph just right, much like a painter, spending hours until she found the most appropriate pose and best possible light. She tended to emphasize figures and their relation to each other, often using landscape as background to delineate or amplify the human message. Overall, Petersen observes, “Kasebier asserted a subjective function for photography — what images might convey was not just external reality but inner states, both of the sitter and, perhaps more important, of the photographer.”

One of the earliest images on view, dating to around 1896, untitled (portrait of Hermine Kasebier), is noteworthy for its simplicity and overall moodiness. It reflects the artist’s effort to exploit the atmospheric potential of the platinum print process to achieve tone, ambience and values.

In one of her loveliest works, “The Manger,” circa 1899, a woman in a white dress and veil protectively cradles an infant in her arms. The pose and barnlike setting suggest the dignity of all women and children, regardless of station in life.

By contrast, “Real Motherhood,” 1900, shows Kasebier’s oldest daughter holding her son, the photographer’s first grandchild. According to curator Petersen, “Platinum is here printed on a support of tissue, often favored by Kasebier for the way it allowed light to shine through from behind to create a soft, luminous and ethereal image.”

Other ambitiously painterly works depict a farmer harvesting tomatoes and a trio of African American workmen on a construction job, both illustrating magazine articles. They project few hints of social criticism; Kasebier was a late Nineteenth Century romantic who rarely confronted the harsh realities of labor or other pressing social concerns of her time. Each is a gum bichromate print, the result of a laborious process that produces broad tones and soft details that resemble paintings.

After her husband died in 1910, Kasebier moved from Long Island to a new studio and residence on West 71st Street in New York. Freed of family responsibilities, she continued portrait photography, although she was increasingly less prolific and her popularity gradually declined. “Because her style did not grow or develop in a significant way after 1910,” Homer has written, “she began to seem a conservative figure, unable to change with the times.” Her adherence to the original concept of Pictorialism — romantic soft-focus imagery — seemed out of date.

With the help of daughter Hermine, Kasebier continued to operate her portrait studio, with diminished portraiture business, until 1927. She died seven years later at 82.

Kasebier’s oeuvre stands out for the unusually large number of photographic printing processes she employed. Only Edward Steichen rivaled her in the range of techniques, and he was far less prolific. As Homer wrote, “her early experiences as a painter” may have enabled her “to envision painterly and pictorial possibilities with a broader vision than most other photographers of her time.” Her productivity was astounding; Homer estimated she made about 100,000 negatives in her lifetime, a “startling figure” considering that she worked with little assistance as an individual photographer, not as part of a commercial studio.

“Volume alone is not a measure of significance,” concluded Homer, “but in Kasebier’s case she seems to have made a remarkably large number of successful photographs with this total count, and that is a worthy achievement.”

With the general shift among progressive photographers away from her kind of sentimental imagery in favor of a more direct, unromantic style, epitomized by the work of Paul Strand, Kasebier’s reputation began to fade into obscurity after 1917. “The untouched negative,” wrote one expert, “was no longer a preference but a prerequisite.”

The feminist movement and revival of interest in pictorial photography in the 1970s, particularly the work of Stieglitz and the Photo-Secession group, has restored Kasebier’s high standing among the pantheon of distinguished Pictorialists. As conservators Debra Hess Norris, Jennifer Jae Guiterrez and Greta Glaster write in their catalog essay, “Kasebier’s cherished imagery, printed in metallic platinum and finely divided earth pigments, achieves an iconic painterly effect that inspires today’s scholars and public audiences.”

These two fine exhibitions solidify Gertrude Kasebier’s rightfully elevated place in the annals of American photography.

The University of Delaware exhibition is accompanied by a 129-page, fully illustrated catalog published by University of Delaware Press; it sells for $29.95.

The Delaware Art Museum is at 2301 Kentmere Parkway in Wilmington. For information, or 866-232-3714 (toll free).

The Old Gallery at the University of Delaware is at 18 East Main Street in Newark. For information, or 302-83l-8037.

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