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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Alfred Stieglitz (1864–1946) and His Circle

Recognized as a pioneer in the advancement of Pictorial photography in America and abroad, Alfred Stieglitz (1864–1946), photographer, publisher, gallerist, and impresario, also made unparalleled contributions to the introduction of modern art in America and gave unequivocal support to young American modernist painters. In 1905, Stieglitz, in association with the photographer and painter Edward J. Steichen, opened the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession in Steichen’s former studio at 291 Fifth Avenue. Commonly called “291,” the small gallery was originally an outlet for exhibiting work by Photo-Secessionist photographers, but subsequently it became a preeminent center for the exhibition of modern European and American artists. With the aide of advisors Steichen, Marius de Zayas, and Max Weber, who had connections with artists and galleries in France, 291 became the first venue in America to show Auguste Rodin and Henri Matisse (in 1908), Paul Cézanne (in 1910), and Pablo Picasso (in 1911). The Metropolitan’s Standing Female Nude (49.70.34) by Picasso was shown in the artist’s American debut exhibition and purchased by Stieglitz, one of two drawings that sold.

From 1907 to 1913, Stieglitz’s rigorous exhibition program at 291 continued to introduce the work of other European moderns while simultaneously cultivating an advanced circle of young American artists, which included Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, John Marin, Alfred Maurer, Steichen, Abraham Walkowitz, Weber, and the Mexican de Zayas. Responding to the avant-garde art of Europe and stimulating developments in skyscraper construction, industry, machines, transatlantic travel, and widespread urbanization in New York, these American artists produced energized and powerful pictures reflective of a new and exciting modern world. Saint Paul’s, Manhattan (49.70.110) by master watercolorist John Marin echoes these sentiments by depicting the frenetic urban experience with animated vigor. Additionally, many American artists found it a rite of passage to travel abroad. Hartley, for example, lived in Germany for a time, where he painted Portrait of a German Officer (49.70.42). Blending the Cubist-collage technique of Picasso and the emotive powers of Vasily Kandinsky and the German Expressionists, this abstract portrait reflects the loss of a close friend, a German officer who died during the early months of World War I.

Following the International Exhibition of Modern Art, known as the Armory Show, which opened in New York in February 1913, Stieglitz found his unique role and 291’s pioneering stance as a storm center for modernism challenged. The Armory Show exhibited nearly 1,300 paintings, drawings, prints, and sculptures from Europe and America in an astounding survey of modern art history and trends. Although not directly involved with the exhibition’s organization, Stieglitz gave his support by serving as an honorary vice-president (along with Mabel Dodge, Mrs. Jack Gardner, Claude Monet, and Odilon Redon), lending works from his gallery and openly endorsing the show in the press. He also purchased several works from the exhibition, including the single painting by Kandinsky, Improvisation 27 (Garden of Love II) (49.70.1). Stieglitz was already familiar with Kandinsky’s art and theories, having reproduced excerpts of the artist’s seminal thesis Concerning the Spiritual in Art in a 1912 volume of Camera Work, his exquisitely produced photographic journal (published 1903–17) which had become a forum for modern art and photography. In the years following the Armory Show until the closing of 291 in 1917, Stieglitz dedicated most of his exhibitions to work by American artists, including Georgia O’Keeffe. He first exhibited O’Keeffe’s drawings in a group show in 1916 followed by a one-person show in 1917, which was 291’s last installation. Defeated by financial woes caused by the war, and his own uncertainty about his role in promoting modern art, Stieglitz closed the gallery. Over the next eight years, he focused on his own photography, beginning an extended series of portraits of O’Keeffe that continued until 1937, and organized exhibitions of art and photography at other venues.

Opening The Intimate Gallery in 1925, Stieglitz had already forged an allegiance with a select group of American artists, including O’Keeffe, Dove, Hartley, Marin, Charles Demuth, and photographer Paul Strand. Headed by Stieglitz, this tightly knit group, through their association with writers such as Waldo Frank, Paul Rosenfeld, and William Carlos Williams, promoted an enlightened commitment to the art and artists of America. As Stieglitz and his circle sought to define an authentic American identity, they looked toward cultivating a national spirit derived strictly from the American soil. Their activities included composing an ongoing series of “portraits” of each other, exemplified in Rosenfeld’s book Port of New York: Essays on Fourteen American Moderns (1924). Demuth’s I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold (49.59.1), an homage to William Carlos Williams, is a definitive visual example of these portraits. In a celebration of Williams’ poem, “The Great Figure,” about a fire truck with the number 5 stamped on it that speeds through the rainy streets of New York, Demuth places the poet and his work in concert with elements of the urban experience. In the mid-1920s, as Stieglitz began to promote O’Keeffe’s work even more aggressively, she gained an independence and confidence that allowed her to produce a wholly American brand of modernism. Having never traveled to Europe, she became Stieglitz’s icon for the authentic American-born modernist painter. Her pictures, particularly the studies of flowers, demonstrate an original exploration of composition and form as seen in the Museum’s Black Iris (69.278.1).

In 1929, Stieglitz moved his gallery to a new site and renamed it An American Place, emphasizing his renewed dedication to American art. Continuing an exhibition schedule comparable to the one he directed at The Intimate Gallery, Stieglitz focused on his solid stable of American artists—Dove, Marin, and O’Keeffe—with sporadic exhibitions of other artists and photographers such as Ansel Adams and Eliot Porter. Although Arthur Dove had not had regular exhibitions at 291, he became a fixture in the program of The Intimate Gallery and An American Place, showing consistently until 1945 (in fact, eleven paintings by Dove comprised the last exhibition at An American Place). Dove’s Goat (49.70.37) typifies his organic, flowing forms that, until married to their titles, present an ambiguous tension between abstraction and representation.

As the 1930s moved into the 1940s, the rhetoric of the Stieglitz circle gouged deeper spiritual undertones about American identity, and its artists developed independent styles that blurred the lines between nature and abstraction. His relentless promotion of American art created new appreciation and new markets for this work, where none had previously existed. The current popularity of such artists as O’Keeffe and Marin is in large measure due to Alfred Stieglitz. His legacy continues to resonate today as his significant collection of works by American and European artists and photographers is strategically deposited in the following institutions throughout the United States: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, Fisk University, the National Gallery of Art, Yale University, Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.