When Steichen was only a teenager living in Wisconsin, one of his greatest heroes was the sculptor Auguste Rodin. A little later at the age of 21, Steichen moved to Paris where he hoped to meet his idol and shortly succeeded in doing so. After making weekly trips to watch Rodin at work in his studio just outside of Paris in Meudon, Steichen made the two exposures which led to this definitive homage to his master.
Rodin and Steichen developed a very close working relationship over the years. Steichen wrote about this photograph in his autobiography, 'He [Rodin] was quite proud of the picture and showed it to everybody.' (Steichen, A Life in Photography, Doubleday, 1963, n.p.) In 1908, Rodin suggested to Steichen that he photograph the plaster cast of his Balzac in the moonlight to portray it better than in daylight which would only emphasize the harsh, chalky appearance of the plaster. Rodin was so pleased with the results that he paid Steichen the very generous sum at the time of 2,000 francs, he gave him a bronze statuette and began to refer to him as 'mon fils'.
Like many young artists today using a variety of new media to make
their art, Steichen, a painter for more than twenty years at the
start of his long career, also used photographic means for expression. Rodin--Le Penseur is a brilliantly succesful attempt to make a picture through photography that can hold equal footing on a gallery wall with an easel painting. Indeed, without being informed, most viewers would not suspect its photographic origins. Its fabrication was remarkably complex, time consuming and expensive which helps explain why there are so few prints. There are only a handful extant in this size. This might be the only one that still has the black paper mask around the edges which was Steichens preferred form of presentation.
Steichen wished to include Rodin in profile, the sculpture of Victor
Hugo and Le Penseur all in one picture. The only way he could do
so was to combine two separate negatives. He had to make one enlarged
negative for the large format print he desired. Because of the
richness of the color, it is possible that the present gum bichromate
print is the result of two separate printings in somewhat different
colors. It is not clear how much of the hand work visible is in the
negative and how much done on the print as the final layer of varnish
covers over the surface disruptions, including the signature.
Steichen was a founding member in 1902 of Alfred Stiegliltzs elitist
Photo-Secession, a group of decidedly artistic photographers
thoroughly under the sway of Symbolism. While striving for the
acceptance of photography as a legitimate medium of artistic
expression they aped paintings forms and conventions and fabricated
pictures that tried to look like anything but a photograph. As such, Rodin--Le Penseur is one of the best and most representative of
Photo-Secessionist works ever made. It was not until after the First
World War that Steichen burned most of his paintings, pronounced himself a photographer and adopted a crisp modernist style in complete opposition to the kind of work he had done fifteen to twenty years earlier. He found it more in keeping with the times and with his own artistic temperament as he matured. Yet, in the last years of
his life shared with his wife Joanna Steichen, she recounts that Rodin -- Le Penseur was the only one of his own photographs that
he could bear to have on the walls of his home. (Steichen, Steichens Legacy, Alfred A. Knopf, 2000, p. 148.)
The present lot was a gift from Steichen to Heinrich Kuehn, one of the leading members of the pictorialist movement in Europe and one of the finest of all practitioners of gum bichromate printing. The print passed into the possession of Kuehns grandson and was acquired by the present owner at auction in 1995.