It was 1916 and Anna Pollitzer, a friend of O'Keeffe's from her days as a student, received a few charcoal drawings from O'Keeffe. Pollitzer broke her promise to O'Keeffe not to show the drawings to anyone by giving them to Stieglitz. And that led to the confrontation and - eventually - a long-term relationship.
The Photography of Alfred Stieglitz: Georgia O'Keeffe's Enduring Legacy documents these two important artists through Stieglitz's photographs. The exhibit is on display at the Davenport Museum of Art through January 27.
As the director of the 291 Gallery in New York, Stieglitz was arguably one of the most powerful men on the American art scene. The exhibition catalog, which is well worth purchasing, states this clearly: "Many young artists and writers ... found themselves reduced to idolatry. They willingly relinquished their truths to his definition of their task."
O'Keeffe was an unknown artist making a living teaching art at the post-high-school level in Texas. A letter from O'Keeffe to Pollitzer in 1915 shows how Anna might have gotten the notion to show O'Keeffe's work to Stieglitz: "I believe I would rather have Stieglitz like something - anything I had done - than anyone else I know of - I have always thought that - if I ever make anything that satisfies me even ever so little - I am going to show it to him to find out if it's any good - Don't you often wish you could make something he might like?"
I have to wonder if Stieglitz was taken by O'Keeffe's dominating spirit. In O'Keeffe, he found a young woman who could dominate him, and I think there were immediate sexual fireworks for the older man. You can still see O'Keeffe re-creating the imperious demeanor in Stieglitz's photos of her taken as late as 1920. (See photo number 120 in the exhibition.)
The relationship between Stieglitz and O'Keeffe was shocking on many levels. First was their 25-year age difference. Then there was the small detail that Stieglitz was married with a family. Furthermore, Stieglitz and O'Keeffe lived together for several years until Stieglitz's divorce and marriage to O'Keeffe in 1924. Lastly, O'Keeffe's friends were aware of her prior relationships with women and wondered what she was doing with a man. For all of that, the marriage between Stieglitz and O'Keeffe lasted 22 years, until he died in 1946.
Stieglitz was born in New Jersey during the Civil War. He studied engineering in Europe, where he became interested in photography. He was from an affluent family and married an heiress to a brewery fortune, which gave him time and resources to pursue photography and art. It was as the director of the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession at 291 Fifth Avenue (known simply as the 291 gallery) from 1905 to 1917 that he began to make his indelible mark on the American art scene.
Stieglitz organized the first exhibitions in America of work by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Georges Braque, and Paul Cézanne, among other French Impressionists. But he was also one of the first to support American modernist artists such as O'Keeffe, Arthur Dove, John Marin, Marsden Hartley, and Charles Demuth. Without Stieglitz's promotion, O'Keeffe might never have been discovered by the art community at-large.
Stieglitz was such a tireless champion of other artists' work that he gave much less effort to promoting his own. O'Keeffe tried to correct that imbalance. After her husband died, she sent some 1,400 photographs to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. (Its Web site currently features some of his photographs from 1892 to 1917 at http://www.nga.gov/feature/stieglitz/asmain.htm.) O'Keeffe also sent collections of Stieglitz's work to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Museum of Modern Art. Given the stature that O'Keeffe had achieved by 1946, her bequests to these museums could not be ignored, and thus she cemented his reputation as a photographer.
The current exhibit at the Davenport Museum of Art is drawn from the 87 prints given to the George Eastman House in 1951. The Eastman museum was not founded until after Stieglitz's death and was therefore not included in O'Keeffe's first gifts. But O'Keeffe wrote in a 1950 letter that she thinks the collection was among the best: "I hope you realize that the group of prints set aside for George Eastman House is one of the finest Stieglitz print groups in the country."
This exhibition shows the evolution of Stieglitz as a photographer, and it's a must-see for any lover of the medium.
Stieglitz started out painting with the camera. For example, compare his 1893 photograph The Terminal with Claude Monet's series of paintings of La Gare and Sainte-Lazare railroad stations from 1877. It is clear that Stieglitz is imitating the same atmospheric quality of the steam rising, and the way the foreground elements contrast with the grayed-out images that fade into the background.
Later, when he was with O'Keeffe, Stieglitz produced his Equivalent photos of clouds in the sky. O'Keeffe had done a renowned series of sky and cloud paintings, and Stieglitz's avowed goal was to do things with the camera that would not be done in a painting or sculpture. It seems he was so dominated by the artists whose work he promoted that he never compositionally emerged from their shadows. But given the stature of these artists, there is plenty of room for wonderful art within their shadows, and many of Stieglitz's prints in this show are wonderful.
My favorites are the New York cityscapes, but I wish O'Keeffe's instructions allowed for the images to be enlarged, because I find their small size somewhat distracting. This was the first time I'd seen any of Stieglitz's work in person, and I'd always in the photographs as larger. It is almost as if Stieglitz didn't think his work was worth enlarging, so he kept the prints small. It could also be that the prints at the National Gallery of Art contain more enlargements than this collection does.
(I would recommend that you check out some of Stieglitz's images on the Internet and then go see his work in person. That way, you can compare your impressions with the actual works.)
The exhibit also includes some of Stieglitz's cameras, important because the artist pioneered the use of the hand-held camera. The photo snobs of the era argued that no serious photographer could use a hand-held camera, but Stieglitz maintained they freed him up to document the cityscapes and other outdoor scenes. As founder and editor of the magazine Camera Work from 1903 to 1917, Stieglitz had a popular forum in which to advance his ideas and the work of other photographers, so over time, the art world has come to Stieglitz's view that the size of the camera has little to do with the greatness of the work.
The Davenport Museum of Art should be commended highly for being among the few galleries to exhibit this show. Stieglitz's influence was important in the American art scene, and he'd be remembered even if he had done no work of his own. In fact, his contributions to the reputations of other artists have meant that the importance of his work is frequently minimized. This exhibition gives his work recognition in its own right.