The Stieglitz Circle — icons of American Modernism
Specialists Eric Widing and Paige Kestenman look at highlights from The Michael Scharf Family Collection, while below Jessica Lack tells the story of a group of artists who instigated a transformation in the development of Modern American art
In 1908, a small exhibition of Auguste Rodin’s nude drawings opened in Manhattan. Organised by Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946), photographer, editor, and proselytiser of the European avant-garde, it was one of several subsequent exhibitions designed to expose the bewildered American public to new ideas in modern art.
The show shocked society, and according to the Mexican artist Marius de Zayas it took another 11 years of ‘hard labour’ to convince the city that artists such as Cézanne, Picasso and Matisse had merit. Much of that was down to Stieglitz, who tirelessly promoted both European and American artists at his Manhattan galleries, first at the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession (colloquially known as ‘291’), then at The Intimate Gallery, and finally at An American Place.
Today, Stieglitz is regarded as a visionary protagonist in the birth of American modern art, and on 22 May in New York a comprehensive array of early, primarily abstract works by the American artists he promoted and who became members of his circle will be offered from The Michael Scharf Family Collection. These artists were often influenced by their contemporaries in Europe, and yet succeeded in creating a new and distinctly American genre.
Stieglitz did not always enjoy the reputation he has today. In the early 1900s he was considered by many to be little more that a minor curiosity, one who offloaded ‘impossible travesties’ on the public. As Christie’s Deputy Chairman Eric Widing explains, ‘There was virtually no critical discussion around modern art in New York at that time, which meant Stieglitz was either ignored or dismissed.’
Yet Stieglitz’s indomitable belief in the possibility of an American modernism persisted. He gathered about him a group of talented, young, native artists, among them Marsden Hartley, John Marin, Arthur Dove and Charles Demuth, Max Weber and, later, his wife Georgia O’Keeffe. It was these artists who provided the genesis of such an idea.
‘Stieglitz was promoting a group of artists who were not popular at the time. He needed to be tough’ — Eric Widing
Stieglitz was, and remains, a fascinating character. Having spent his early twenties in Berlin studying chemistry and experimenting with photographic techniques, he returned to New York and was dismayed by the parochialism and commercialism of the art establishment.
His 291 gallery was originally set up to promote photography as a fine art, staging shows by Edward Steichen, Ansel Adams and others, but it soon became the centre of New York’s fledgling art scene. Soon, he began to represent painters, too.
The key to Stieglitz was his understanding of how to sell, when, and to whom. He remained intractably uncommercial, and could be brutally dismissive of clients. His gallery assistant, Herbert Seligmann, described him as ‘vain and theatrical; he could be vindictive and cruel. He could go to extremes in his admiration and in his subsequent depreciation of people. He was a romantic. He erupted with the continuing energy of a volcano.’
Widing agrees, although he suspects that some of this was an act: ‘Certainly he was gruff and difficult and stubborn, but you have to remember he was promoting a group of artists who were not popular at the time. He needed to be tough.’
It worked. Stieglitz established a refined, intellectual aura around his young, soulful artists, and collectors began to take notice. ‘There seems to be something indicative of art excitement in New York doesn’t there?’ wrote Marsden Hartley. ‘I hope that it counts for something, I suppose it cannot always be futile.’
‘One distinctive element of the Stieglitz circle was their interest in nature,’ says Widing. ‘While they drew heavily on what was happening in Europe, their consistent passion was for the natural world and this is what set them apart’. The paintings by the Stieglitz Circle offered for sale from The Michael Scharf Family Collection are united by this overriding consideration.
For these artists, the American landscape was a spiritual place and, at times, an existential quandary. ‘We cannot express the light in nature because we have not the sun,’ said Arthur Dove. ‘We can only express the light we have in ourselves.’ Dove dredged up symbols of psychic states from the bottom of a river bed, while O’Keeffe found her light in the bleached bones of a disembodied skull.
Stieglitz recognised the escapism that these depictions of a vast, untamed and mystical wilderness offered the downtrodden metropolitan masses. As the novelist Sherwood Anderson wrote in the catalogue to their 1925 show, ‘Here are seven artists bringing to you city dwellers their moments of life. They also are as tired as you are tired; life presses down upon them as it presses down upon you. See them here in their moments of life — when life, pumped through their bodies crept down into their fingers.’
In recent years, The Stieglitz Circle has emerged from the shadow cast by mid-century Abstract Expressionism. ‘Georgia O’Keeffe had a major show at Tate Modern in London, and Marsden Hartley has recently been exhibited in Berlin,’ says Widing. ‘They are starting to get international recognition. Twenty years ago, this just wasn’t the case.’
Last year, America’s Cool Modernism, an exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, featured many members of the Stieglitz Circle and was lauded by critics; Laura Cummings of The Observer argued that it presented a new story in the history of American art.
‘These artists played a key role,’ maintains Widing. ‘The story of American Modernism begins with them: they represent the dawn of a new age.’
Key members of The Stieglitz Circle
Charles Demuth (1883-1935)
Born in Lancaster Pennsylvania, Charles Demuth was a highly skilled watercolourist who searched for meaning in the vast great wilderness of the American landscape. Like Marsden Hartley, he was inspired by early modernist writers, and spent time in an artist colony in Provincetown with the playwright Eugene O’Neill, where he became fascinated with symbolism.
For much of his life he suffered from ill health: it is thought that he contracted either tuberculosis or polio as a child, which led to his premature death at the age of 51. In his later years he invented a style of painting known as Precisionism, a vibrant interpretation of industrial America as it hurtled towards the future, which is now considered to be the forerunner of Pop art.
Arthur Dove (1880-1946)
Arthur Dove’s first exhibition of abstract pastels at 291 in 1912 was proclaimed by critics as ‘absolutely original’. The focus on pattern, light, colour and form was considered revolutionary by the gallery-going public, and established Dove as a pioneer of American abstraction — a far cry from his beginnings as a commercial illustrator for the The Saturday Evening Post.
Dove immersed himself in the American landscape, viewing everything in close-up, be it the clay on a river bed or the undulating grooves of sand left by the outgoing tide. It led his friend and fellow artist Georgia O’Keeffe to describe him as ‘the only American painter who is of the earth’. The son of a wealthy brick merchant, Dove’s love of nature was nurtured by his childhood neighbour, the naturalist Newton Weatherby.
Marsden Hartley (1877-1943)
Marsden Hartley had his first one-man show at 291 in 1909, after which Stieglitz encouraged the painter to move to Paris, financing his trip and putting him in touch with members of the European avant-garde. A withdrawn and melancholy figure, Hartley was intimidated by Paris and its flamboyant exhibitionism, preferring the reticence of Berlin, where he became acquainted with Wassily Kandinsky’s Der Blaue Reiter group.
On his return to New York he began to write and to develop a synthetic Cubist style, which consisted of vertical arrangements of flat planes of muted colours partly inspired by sailboats and the seashore. ‘I want my work in both writing and painting to have that special coolness,’ he explained, ‘for I weary of emotional excitement in art.’
Together with John Marin, he spent much of his artistic career in Maine, his childhood home, capturing the everyday life of the fishing community he encountered there.
John Marin (1870-1953)
It was the photographer Edward Steichen who discovered John Marin in Paris in 1906; the young American painter was making his living in the city selling picturesque watercolours to tourists. Impressed by his uninhibited style, Steichen put the artist in contact with Stieglitz, who gave Marin his first solo show at 291 in 1909.
They quickly became friends, with Stieglitz writing that Marin ‘is a rare artist — and an extraordinarily modest fellow — a fine character.’ Marin’s greatest subject matter was the rocky, windswept coastline around Maine. He was captivated by the constantly changing light, colours and textures.
During an era of industrial inhumanity, these misty seascapes came to be seen as escapism for the soul by the American public. Of all the Stieglitz artists, he was one of the most celebrated during his lifetime, having a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1936, and being awarded an honorary degree from the University of Maine.
Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986)
A farm girl raised in the dry-dust of Wisconsin, Georgia O’Keeffe was the most famous member of The Stieglitz Circle. Having resolved to be an artist at the age of 11, she went to study at the Art Institute of Chicago, then moved to New York before returning to her childhood home of Amarillo.
In 1919 she began to paint flowers — dark irises and fleshy white calla lilies — that were tightly cropped and magnified so that they appeared almost abstract. ‘When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it — it’s your world for a moment. I want to give that world to someone else,’ she explained.
In 1924 she married Stieglitz, who became her greatest champion, describing the painter as ‘the first female modernist’. Yet his wandering eye and demanding personality left O’Keeffe exhausted and claustrophobic. In 1949 she escaped the hyper-density of New York for the uncompromising wilderness of New Mexico, where she remained until her death in 1986.
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Max Weber (1881-1961)
Max Weber was the black sheep of the Stieglitz Circle, as uncompromising and intransigent as his gallerist. He had a brief, intense and turbulent working relationship with Stieglitz, which ended in 1911 after his show of paintings was excoriated by the press.
Today his early experiments with Cubism are celebrated as forerunners of American Abstract Expressionism, but in the early 1900s they were considered travesties.
Weber’s love of music inspired his paintings, the artist finding in the dissonance and syncopated rhythms of early modern music and jazz the jarring structure that invigorated his bold Cubism.