Introduction & Biographical Essay | Resources
Introduction & Biographical Essay
[Gertrude Käsebier, wearing feathered hat, standing, facing front, half-length portrait]
Baron Adolf De Meyer, photographer,
At the turn of the twentieth century, Gertrude Käsebier had accomplished many things--marriage, children, a stellar art career, and success in the magazine marketplace. She was one of the best known photographers in the United States. Her photographs of women and children hung in major exhibitions. Critics extolled the virtues of her portraits. In 1899 one of her pictures sold for $100, the highest price yet paid for a photograph and a record that was rarely challenged for over fifty years.1
From about 1898 until 1912, Käsebier, like Alfred Stieglitz, belonged to the Pictorialist school, which sought to elevate the status of photography to a fine art, much like the weavers, potters, furniture makers, and fabric designers in the Aesthetic movement who elevated the status of crafts in the United States and Great Britain. In July 1899, in Camera Notes, the official magazine of the Camera Club of New York, Stieglitz, the magazine's editor, described Käsebier as "beyond dispute, the leading portrait photographer in the country." 2 But she also published photographs in popular magazines, as did he, even as they tried to draw a distinct line between artistic pictures and every other form of photography.
FBJ [Frances Benjamin Johnston] and Mrs. Gertrude Käsebier, famous photographer, on patio of a Venetian hotel
In July 1899, at the same time Stieglitz extolled Käsebier's images, department store owner John Wanamaker praised her photographs in his newly acquired Everybody's Magazine, placing her at the top of both art photography and magazine photography. This was a twin success almost unheard of in any era, but Käsebier achieved it.
The Library of Congress has a strong selection of Käsebier's photographs and negatives (see: http://www.loc.gov/pictures/search/?q=Kasebier) as well as the magazines in which they were published and the newspapers that provided coverage of her work. Photographs of her with friends and colleagues, particularly Frances Benjamin Johnston and Clarence White, facilitate the study of Käsebier's life and the influences on her. These came to the Prints and Photographs Division as gifts and purchases, transfers from the Copyright Office and the Library's Manuscript Division, and in the collections of Frances Benjamin Johnston and Clarence White.
Gertrude Stanton Käsebier was born on May 19, 1852, in a log cabin in Fort Des Moines, Iowa, to John W. and Gertrude Muncy Shaw Stanton. During the 1859 Colorado gold rush, the Stantons moved to a series of boom towns where John assayed gold and his wife sold baked goods to the miners.
In 1874, on the rebound from a failed romantic relationship, Gertrude married Eduard Käsebier, a shellac importer from an aristocratic family in Germany. The marriage provided her with financial stability, a home, a son and two daughters, but less companionship than she desired. Throughout her career, she made idealistic images about motherhood but had nothing good to say about marriage.
Becoming a Photographer
Käsebier's ability to discern the complexities of situations helped her achieve conflicting goals. She aimed to be associated with fine art and the upper classes but she enjoyed the relatively déclassé technical art of photography. She also wanted to earn a living, a desire that brought criticism from Stieglitz for sacrificing art to commerce, while society frowned on women participating in any kind of business. At a time when a salesman challenged women's right to purchase high quality photographic equipment, Käsebier encouraged women to enter the professional world.3 For example, she befriended and supported Frances Benjamin Johnston, whose ambition and need to earn an income may have surpassed her own.
Käsebier managed to produce art photographs, earn money, ardently recruit women into the profession of photography, and maintain her social status. In a 1913 New York Times article encouraging women to take up the profession of photography, she recalled:
"After my babies came I determined to learn to use the brush. I wanted to hold their lovely little faces in some way that should be also my expression, so I went to an art school; two or three of them, in fact. But art is long and childhood is fleeting, I soon discovered, and the children were losing their baby faces before I learned to paint portraits, so I chose a quicker medium."4
This explanation for becoming a photographer could endear her to women and diffuse any threat Victorian males might feel from a woman engaged with people not part of her family.
Käsebier started her photography career in the direction of fine art rather than commerce. In the Spring of 1894, while still a student at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, she published a photograph of a young woman posed against a medallion of light to achieve a halo effect, much like a European classical painting, in the one-year old arts magazine Quarterly Illustrator which straddled the art/commercial line.5 Because photography was not yet considered a legitimate art, when Käsebier's photograph won a prize, her teachers shamed her for the photograph and for publishing it. She felt so bad about violating the delineation that she gave away her prize money.6 Still, in 1895 she published her snapshot style images from a European trip in Monthly Illustrator, successor to the Quarterly.7
"The Old Market Women"
Monthly Illustrator 4, no. 12.
Gertrude Käsebier, photographer.
Käsebier was well known for her hospitality, which extended to fellow art students, professors, and other artists and photographers, and helped advance her career. At Pratt, she forged a long-lasting relationship with her teacher, Arthur Dow, who later wrote favorable reviews of her exhibitions.8
In 1895, when Käsebier's husband was seriously ill and her family's finances were strained, Käsebier became a portrait photographer. During her apprenticeship year of 1896, she created 150 portraits of young Brooklyn socialites in the style of Old Masters paintings, even though she verbally denied comparing them with classical painting.9
Although her husband recovered and resumed his work, Käsebier set about earning money of her own. Like most other women pursuing businesses in the 1890s, Käsebier opened her first studio in the sanctuary of her Brooklyn home. She soon moved her operation to the emerging upscale shopping district known as the "Ladies Mile" developing rapidly along Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.10 She styled her studio as both an art photography practice and a high-end commercial portrait studio, an arrangement that paralleled her relationships with Stieglitz and Wanamaker. She furnished the studio in simple Arts and Crafts style. She publicized it just enough to alert potential clients but not so much that it appeared commercial.
[Clarence H. White, Gertrude Käsebier, and F. Holland Day seated on rocks at Georgetown, Maine]
Clara E. Sipprell, photographer,
Käsebier allied herself with the emerging movement in art photography. In June 1898, she introduced herself to art photography dean Alfred Stieglitz, asking for his advice on photographing outdoors, even though she had already published outdoor photographs of her trip to Normandy in 1894. Käsebier capitalized on already popular Victorian topics such as motherhood, and she exhibited her work in appropriate settings, such as the New York Camera Club, and in competitive amateur salons alongside other serious photographers.11
Käsebier proved to be a master at working with the notoriously difficult Stieglitz, relying on her innate artistic talent, appealing to their common German cultural affiliations, and sharing a powerful ambition to become recognized as serious artists. From 1898 until 1912, Käsebier stayed in close contact with Stieglitz as well as with artists and other art photographers. She met the Boston-based F. Holland Day in 1898 at the First Photographic Salon of Philadelphia and saw him again in April 1899 when fifteen of her portraits were included in the Boston Arts and Crafts Exhibition.12 As one of the few females in the competitive Pictorialist circle, she was commonly called "Granny," a sobriquet that could eliminate sexual tensions but did not conceal her natural "tendency to act forcefully on her own behalf."13
Publishing in Popular Magazines
Käsebier came to specialize in making photographs of prominent people. When new illustrated magazines sprang up in the 1890s and 1900s due to innovations in printing images and improvements in mail distribution, she used them to find a new audience for her work. The December 1900 issue of World's Work contained, for example, a portrait of writer and humorist Mark Twain.
World's Work: Magazine of the Arts and Public Affairs was a Progressive monthly published from 1900 to 1932 that analyzed complex social issues and profiled people who dealt with them successfully. Its publisher Walter Hines Page was also a partner of Doubleday, Page and Company. The issues were well-illustrated and about half were halftone engravings from photographs.14
Between 1900 and May 1902, Käsebier provided World's Work with ten impressive portraits. The subjects included Arthur Twining Hadley, the president of Yale University; Booker T. Washington, president of Tuskegee Institute and author of the autobiography, Up from Slavery; and Jacob Riis, photographer and activist author of the autobiography The Making of an American. Most of the remaining portraits attributed to Käsebier appear to be copies of work in other media by various artists.
Walter Page was especially interested in new scientific methods of farming and the farmer's wellbeing. Käsebier provided illustrations for journalist J. P Mowbray's short story "Going Back to the Soil," in the January 1901 issue of World's Work. Käsebier's illustrations show farm scenes, animals, people working at farm chores and still lifes.15
In the same issue as Käsebier's "Going Back to the Soil" illustrations, World's Work featured the first of many illustrated articles on the topic of national parks. "Park-Making as a National Art" included a landscape photograph by Alfred Stieglitz.16 Maybe the two were exploring possibilities that magazines offered as they helped to invent the modern artist in the United States.17 Or perhaps they plunged into the commercial publication pool together to reinforce each other.
In December 1899, Philadelphia department store owner John Wanamaker bought the periodical Everybody's Magazine. One of the most successful family magazines of the day, Everybody's provided high visibility for the photographer. At the time of Wanamaker's purchase, it reached an estimated 150,000 homes at the turn of the century.18 To avoid the stigma associated with commercial photography, Käsebier had minimized advertising her portrait studio but with the inclusion of her photographs in exhibitions, magazine illustrations and Wanamaker's publicity, she had little need to advertise.19
The first of Käsebier's projects in Everybody's was her photography of American Indians. As a child in the Colorado Territory, Käsebier had played with Indian children. In 1898, The New York Times announced that she had begun to invite to her home the popular Native Americans who were a part of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show.20 Between 1898 and 1899, she made many portraits when the show's cast visited her studio. She also photographed the drawings she asked them to do while they visited. In January 1901 Everybody's published Käsebier's own article about the visits.21
The most famous portrait from these sessions is "The Red Man." The Library has the original negative which can be compared with the print that Kasebier modified artistically.22 This is another instance of the dual nature of her work--her initial vision through the lens needed artistic interpretation to fulfill her.
As did many artists and photographers, Käsebier produced photographic illustrations for fiction. The February 1901 issue Everybody's Magazine began to publish Mowbray's long novel The Making of a Country Home, a book about the back-to-the-land movement. In ten installments between February and November, Everybody's ran the story illustrated with Käsebier's idyllic photographs of her family. Käsebier's older daughter, Gertrude Käsebier O'Malley, posed at her home in rural New Jersey for photographs used for this story. Photographs in Pictorialist style of young families, landscapes, and farm workers in picturesque poses, with Käsebier's signature in Japanese chop-block style, appear throughout the first eight installments.
The differences between the original glass plate negative and the artistically presented published print show hallmarks of the Pictorialist style--reworking the original negative in order to emphasize the human figures, intensify the dramatic impression of weather, and demonstrate the beauty of the landscape. Unlike her contemporaries Jacob Riis and Alice Austen, Käsebier showed no interest in documenting the lives of the lower classes. Her published photographs of lower classes were the tourist snapshots in Normandy published in 1895 or romanticized as part of a back-to-nature novel with the photos printed in manipulated form.
[Mother and child posed by G. O'Malley .... at Oceanside, Long Island in 1900]
Gertrude Käsebier, photographer,
Wanamaker also published a series of articles by art critic Charles H. Caffin to teach connoisseurship to a general audience. In the May 1901 issue, Caffin addressed Kasebier: "Photography as Fine Art--Mrs. Gertrude Käsebier and the Artistic-Commercial Portrait."23 Caffin's inclusion of a Pictorialist treatment of an image Käsebier had previously published as a travel photograph provides an example of how she re-worked her photographs in order to give them different appearances and to satisfy her dual desires. In the April 1895 issue of Illustrated Monthly, the photograph had appeared as a travel photo titled, "Waiting for the Procession."24 Six years later its background was stippled, making the location less identifiable and was called "La Grand-mère."
In late spring 1901, one of America's best-known photographers, Frances Benjamin Johnston, published a celebratory article in Ladies' Home Journal about Käsebier's photographs in an exhibition of American women's art photographs at the 1900 Paris Exposition. Johnston's series was called "The Foremost Women Photographers of America." Kasebier had risen in only three years to the highest level of accomplishment and acclaim in art photography in the United States. The article included four of Käsebier's best-known photographs.
Käsebier continued to produce portraits in the Pictorialist style, but the purists of the movement, including Stieglitz, dissociated themselves from her because of her open desire to earn a living. Over the next decade the straight photographic style of Modernism replaced the vogue for the soft focus of Pictorialism but Käsebier remained well-respected by Pictorialists such as Clarence H. White and F. Holland Day.
Emotionally distancing herself from her husband may have helped Käsebier's sense of independence, especially as they aged. Her biographer Barbara Michaels commented about the years 1908 and 1909, that "as her husband grew sicker..., Käsebier's interest in her own business seems to have grown. Her need to prosper was as much psychological as financial, though her husband left her well-off. She might have lived comfortably without additional income, but her career was her life." 25 For all her objections to her husband's presence, Käsebier's productive years ended soon after the deaths of her husband (December 1909) and her mother (August 1910) who had run her household.
Increasingly housebound in the 1910s and '20s, Käsebier enjoyed visits from and correspondence with established photographers. In the mid-1920s Käsebier passed the portrait studio on to her daughter Hermine Käsebier Turner. The Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences celebrated the Grande Dame with a 1929 exhibition. She died on October 12, 1934, at 83 at Hermine's home.
Käsebier's life was an American success story, rising from frontier origins to fine art, from precarious means to financial stability. She rose to the top and maintained her position in a fiercely competitive field, artistically and financially, when her closest counterparts, Zaida Ben Yusuf and Frances Benjamin Johnston, abandoned art photography for needlework and garden photography respectively. Although her fame diminished for awhile, Käsebier's work has been rediscovered and, more than a century after she began her career, her photographs continue to be acclaimed for their beauty and the universality of the themes they evoke.
1 Weston Naef, The Collection of Alfred Stieglitz: Fifty Pioneers of Modern Photography. NY: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1978. pp. 387-88.
2 Alfred Stieglitz, "Our Illustrations," Camera Notes 3 (July 1899): 24.
3 Mrs. William W. Pearce to Frances Benjamin Johnston, October 11, 1897, Frances Benjamin Johnston papers, 1855-1956, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress
4 "The Camera Has Opened a New Profession for Women--Some of Those Who Have Made Good," New York Times, April 20, 1913, X12.
5 Marguerite Tracy, "Shadows of the Artist's Ideal," Quarterly Illustrator 2, no. 6 (April-June 1894): 208, 218.
6 Barbara L. Michaels, Gertrude Käsebier: The Photographer and Her Photographs. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1992, 21.
7 Gertrude Käsebier, "Peasant Life in Normandy," Monthly Illustrator 3, no. 11 (March 1895): 269-275, and "An Art Village," Monthly Illustrator 4, no. 12 (April 1895): 9-17.
8 Michaels 26.
9 Michaels, 29.
10 Michaels, 26.
11 Michaels, 46.
12 Michaels, 48-49.
13 Michaels, 127.
14 Frank Luther Mott, History of American Magazines. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1938-1968, 4: 774-779.
15 J. P Mowbray, "Going Back to the Soil," World's Work 1, no. 3 (January 1901): 267-77.
16 Alfred Stieglitz, "An Icy Night," photograph in H.B. Merwin, "Park-Making as a National Art," World's Work 1, no. 3 (January 1901): 302.
17 Sarah Burns, Inventing the Modern Artist: Art and Culture in Gilded Age America. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996, 161.
18 Elizabeth Hutchinson, "'When the Sioux Chief's Party Calls:' Käsebier's Indian Portraits as and the Gendering of the Artist's Studio," American Art, 16: 2 (Summer 2002): 52.
19 Michaels, 67.
20 "Sioux Chief's Party Calls," New York Times, April 24, 1898, 14.
21 Gertrude Käsebier, "Some Indian Portraits," Everybody's Magazine IV, no. 17(January 1901): 2-24. [Käsebier also provided the portrait of the popular writer Ernest Seton-Thompson who was profiled in this issue.]
22 Her photos of Native Americans also appeared in Camera Notes, 2 (April 1899): 135, 141 and in Photographic Times 3 (May 1900):2.
23 Charles H. Caffin, "Photography as a Fine Art: III, Mrs. Gertrude Käsebier and the Artistic-Commercial Portrait." Everybody's Magazine 4, no. 21 (May 1901): 480-495.
24 Gertrude Käsebier, "Waiting for the Procession," in "An Art Village," Monthly Illustrator 4, no. 12 (April 1895): 14.
25 Michaels, 128.
Prepared by: Beverly W. Brannan, Curator of Photography, Prints & Photographs Division, 2013. Last revised: 2013.