In 1940, de Meyer wrote to Alfred Stieglitz from Los Angeles, 'Do you think the [Metropolitan] museum would lend me my prints for two weeks for my exhibition at Edward G. Robinsons--the movie actor's house?' De Meyer goes on to explain the reason for his question, 'Like you--I have in 1935 destroyed all that was superfluous, it seemed to me a burden--all my photographic work especially--what is left--is due to fortunate incidents--some of my work being elsewhere. I tell people--I had a fire in the house I had my studio in--all was destroyed. They would not understand--I should have waited--never to see any of it again! Now I regret it since I take a serious interest in all I have done myself!--My object at present is to assemble a small collection of my life work--I shall have some 40 prints all told--to leave to someone or some institution--when I die. (Letter dated February 15, 1940, Alfred Stieglitz Archive, Yale University).
The museum did not lend the photographs that Stieglitz had donated in 1933, but a few of de Meyer's important negatives fortuitously survived the purge. He made new prints on 16 x 20 inch sheets of gelatin silver paper which were included in his exhibition at the Robinsons' home. The present lot was made then. It is the only gelatin silver print of Water Lilies known to exist at the time of this writing. Indeed, we know of only two other extant prints of this image. Both are on platinum paper. The print that Stieglitz gave to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1933 still graces that collection. By an extraordinary coincidence in the case of such rare items, we are offering the other platinum print of Water Lilies (see fig.) as lot 820 in our sale October 8th, 2009 (Please refer to the entry for that lot for more about de Meyer and Water Lilies).
This unique gelatin silver print displays a more modern sensibility than the earlier pictorialist prints. The silver print's highlights are a crisp white and the shadow areas tend to a neutral black. While the platinum prints have a longer tonal scale with finer gradations in the middle values, warmer highlights and no real blacks. This contrast is due not only to a difference in material but to a shift in aesthetic that is a reflection of the changing times.
That 'someone' to whom de Meyer left the remains of his life's work when he died in 1946 was his younger lover, Ernest, who he adopted as his own son. Ernest stored all of de Meyer's personal belongings in a steamer trunk where they remained until his death more than thirty years later. This print of Water Lilies was inside that trunk and was included in what has become known informally as the 'Trunk Sale' at Sotheby Parke Bernet, New York, October 20th, 1980. Harvey Shipley Miller and Randy Plummer acquired this print a little over twenty years ago.