Balzac, The Silhouette—4 a.m., 1908
Edward J. Steichen (American, born Luxembourg, 1879–1973)
Gum bichromate print; 14 15/16 x 18 1/8 in. (37.9 x 46 cm)
Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1933 (33.43.36)
Even before Steichen first met Auguste Rodin (1840–1917), he was enthralled by the sculptor and, specifically, by his monument to the French writer Honoré de Balzac. The Milwaukee newspapers had covered Rodin's exhibition of the plaster at the 1898 Salon and its rejection by the writers' society that had commissioned it. "When I saw it reproduced in the Milwaukee newspaper," Steichen wrote, "it seemed the most wonderful thing I had ever seen. . . . It looked like a mountain come to life." After an initial visit to Paris in 1900–1902 and a period of close collaboration with Alfred Stieglitz in New York, Steichen moved back to Paris in 1907 in hopes of resuscitating his idled painting career. There, he rekindled his friendship with Rodin, and in autumn 1908 Rodin invited him to photograph his monumental sculpture of Balzac, whose brooding hulk of a figure had remained covered in the studio since 1900. (It would, in fact, remain uncast during his lifetime.) Rodin moved the plaster to the terrace and suggested that Steichen photograph it by moonlight, which he did, using exposures ranging from fifteen minutes to an hour. The resulting prints convey all the commanding presence Rodin had envisioned: "You will make the world understand my Balzac with your pictures," he told Steichen when given a set of prints a week or two later. Steichen sent a second set of prints (those now in the Museum's collection) to Stieglitz for display at 291, and Stieglitz immediately purchased them for himself.