The waterlilies sparkled, water and glass shining in the sun.
BARON ADOLPH DE MEYER
Alfred Stieglitz, the leading figure of the international pictorialist movement in photography and a powerful force in the development of modern art in America, recognized that de Meyer's Water Lilies was one of the most important images of that era. Not only did he select it for publication in his deluxe review Camera Work, and for exhibition in his gallery, but he also acquired a print for his own collection. Accompanying the gravure reproductions of this photograph, and six others by de Meyer, in the October 1908 issue of the review are Stieglitz's words of high praise, 'His work is original, full of individuality, has strength and delicacy combined, and above all is distingué.'
Stieglitz's endorsement of de Meyer's talent was underlined by his decision to dedicate the complete October 1912 issue of Camera Work to de Meyer's photography. De Meyer was thus featured among the international elite of artistic photographers. He was a member of the Royal Photographic Society and the exclusive pictorialist groups, The Linked Ring, London and the Photo-Secession, New York.
A friend of such artists as James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Walter Sickert and John Singer Sargent among numerous others, de Meyer was also an astute art collector. He was, for instance, one of the first to acquire a painting by the pre-eminent Impressionist artist Claude Monet from his emblematic 'Houses of Parliament' series. It is thus unlikely that de Meyer chose at random to depict what was by 1906 Monet's most insistent idée fixe: the water lily or 'nymphéa.' Whereas Monet usually depicted his 'nymphéas' in situ, de Meyer has boldly taken the flower out of nature and photographed it in his studio where it can be seen three-dimensionally as a single, sensual and magnificent bloom.
De Meyer began working in 1903 with a special hand-ground lens by Pinkham & Smith. This softens and diffuses both shadow areas and highlights in a way that paradoxically maintains general image clarity while softening the hard edges, unlike a diffusion filter which blurs everything. The effect is a luminous quality, a well-known attribute of the Pinkham & Smith lens, which suggest it was used for the present lot. The prominent highlights in Water Lilies appear to have been enhanced by discreet retouching of the negative.
De Meyer's pleading with Stieglitz to take special care with the printing of the photogravures for Camera Work articulates for us what he was trying to achieve with this photograph: 'The proofs you sent me . . . are not luminous, which was the greatest quality of these flower studies, if you do away with that, very little remains. Especially the waterlilies sparkled, water and glass shining in the sun.' (Letter dated September 11th, 1906, Alfred Stieglitz Archive, Yale University). This counterpoint of light reflections, refractions and shadows, particularly in the lower half of the image imparts mystery. The natural elements that create these forms are difficult to discern. The resulting composition anticipates the total abstraction of his friend Alvin Langdon Coburn's 'Vortographs' of a decade later.
While planning an exhibition in 1940, de Meyer wrote Stieglitz that he regretted having destroyed most of his work in 1935. Today, his prints are extremely rare. Indeed, at the time of writing, we know of only two other extant prints of Water Lilies and only one of those is on platinum paper, the print that Stieglitz gave to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1933. That print was exhibited at Stieglitz's Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession Galleries at 291 Fifth Avenue in 1909 and 1912 and was included in the landmark 'International Exhibition of Pictorial Photography' at the Albright Art Gallery in Buffalo in 1910. By an extraordinary coincidence in the case of such rare items, we are offering the only known gelatin silver print of Water Lilies (see fig.) from the Miller-Plummer Collection as lot 560 in our sale October 8th, 2009 (See the note to that lot for further information about de Meyer and Water Lilies).
Since the 1870s, photographers have chosen to print on platinum paper for its extended tonal scale, impossible to achieve on silver paper, and for its permanence. Platinum is more stable than gold and is very costly. Therefore, platinum printing was reserved judiciously by photographers for only the finest images in their oeuvre. De Meyer is acknowledged as one of the most experienced and accomplished exponents of platinum printing in the history of the medium. The rich, velvety surface texture and subtle tonal gradations of this exquisite print well demonstrate why.
In keeping with the special presentation techniques of the pictorialists, the print is tipped to three layers of fine paper, and tipped again to a cream-colored board. De Meyer's distinctive signature with embellishment, inspired by the Viennese Secessionists, most particularly his friend Gustav Klimt, is centered below the image on the third paper mount.
This splendid exhibition print was acquired directly from de Meyer by the acclaimed photographer and cinematographer Karl Struss, already a leading figure within the secessionist movement and considered one of the finest platinum printers of his era. Gifts of personal artwork from one photographer to a contemporary have a distinguished history, most notably with the collection of Alfred Stieglitz. Such a gift would not only convey the respect and esteem of the giver, but the selection of image, and indeed of the print itself, as with Water Lilies, is a sure indicator of the importance bestowed by the artist on the work in question. Struss so prized this print of Water Lilies that he kept it to the end of his life. It is now increasingly uncommon for an exceptional quality print of an iconic image by a major artist and with impeccable provenance to emerge on the market. This is the first time a platinum print of Water Lilies has ever been presented at auction.