On March 5, one of the world’s largest brokers of fine art and collectibles — Sotheby’s — is auctioning off a large collection of items belonging to Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz: a husband-and-wife duo who defined an entire era in the history of American art.
A public preview of the items were made available at Sotheby’s New York base from February 26. Items on auction will include a 1962 edition of “Ulysses” by James Joyce, signed by the painter Marsden Hartley; examples of writings by O’Keeffe and pigments she used to paint; as well an abstract painting by O’Keeffe entitled “From a Day with Juan,” which carries an estimated value of between $1.2 to $1.8 million.
The auction will also include O’Keeffe’s and Stieglitz’s marriage certificate, a testament to the couple’s decades-long, tumultuous ties.
In “Alfred Stieglitz: Taking Pictures, Making Paintings” (part of Yale University Press’s Jewish Lives series) Phyllis Rose spends considerable ink dissecting O’Keeffe and Stieglitz’s passionate relationship. The literary biographer and art critic claims it was always a strong creative partnership built on “mutual respect.”
“The body of work that Stieglitz will most likely be remembered for are his photographs of Georgia O’Keeffe, who later became his wife,” Rose explains by phone from her apartment in central Manhattan.
A legacy not built in a day
Rose notes that O’Keeffe and Stieglitz’s relationship was many years in the making.
In 1893 Stieglitz married Emmeline Obermeyer. Like Stieglitz, she also hailed from a wealthy New York Jewish family but was boorishly conservative and possessed none of his wild enthusiasm and obsessive passion for art and intellectualism. Consequently, it was a relationship doomed from the get go: functional, prudish, dull, and for the most part lacking in love or passion.
O’Keeffe, meanwhile, had first attended Stieglitz’s 291 Gallery in New York as early as 1908. But she but did not come to Stieglitz’s attention until 1916, when a friend of the artist brought some drawings to Stieglitz, who decided to display her work at the 291 Gallery.
“O’Keeffe came to New York and they had an argument where she said Stieglitz had no right to use her work without asking her permission,” Rose says, “but almost immediately they adored each other.”
Rose claims Stieglitz was looking for a “woman capable of becoming a myth and that O’Keeffe proved to be exactly what he needed.” This eventually culminated in a now infamous set of nude photographs taken by Stieglitz where art and life collided, which were exhibited at the Anderson galleries in February and March of 1921.
Rose says in these photos Stieglitz portrayed “the abstract shapes and lines of [O’Keeffe’s] body,” and that in “her goddess-like dishabille [she] appears like something primeval emerging from chaos.”
“The story of their romance and their connection is so wonderful because it’s based on this tremendous professional respect and then later this enormous erotic appeal,” Rose says. “At the beginning of their relationship Stieglitz was the helper because he was one of the most famous artists in America, and O’Keeffe was a nobody from west Texas.”
“He plucked her from obscurity, brought her to New York, and promoted her career,” Rose adds.
There was an age gap of over two decades between the artists, but Rose says that when they finally consummated the relationship sexually, they acted “like teenagers in love.” As time went on, however, the nature of their relationship and priorities changed.
“O’Keeffe became wary of Stieglitz, who was then an old man,” Rose says. “She started going out to New Mexico and making art from the imagery from that [landscape].”
“But I’m certain that Georgia O’Keeffe would have never become the preeminent painter of the United States if it hadn’t been for Stieglitz,” she says with conviction.
“Most of my own career has been spent writing biographies of women and trying to rescue them from their overbearing husbands, but I felt this was a case where [the husband] actually needed to be rescued from [the wife’s] overshadowing fame,” Rose goes on. “I wanted to give Stieglitz his due as an artist in his own right, and as a promoter of other artists.”
“Stieglitz educated and liberated O’Keeffe by giving her the chance to have this huge impact on the American art world,” Rose says. “And, of course, they both liberated each other sexually.”
Artist and patron
Stieglitz began his own artistic career as a photographer in 1886 at the age of 22, Rose says. A generous allowance from his father gave the ambitious young artist total financial and creative freedom to travel and take photographs when and where he pleased.
Photographs from these years, which he spent in Europe, captured both the landscapes and the people Stieglitz encountered during this time and include “The Last Joke — Bellagio,” (1887) “At Lake Como,” (1887) and “Sun Rays — Paula” (1889).
By the time Stieglitz returned to New York in 1890 he was regularly exhibiting shows, publishing in magazines, and winning numerous prizes as a photographer with a growing international reputation. Those first years back in the United States saw Stieglitz culturally frustrated, however. New York appeared dull, unimaginative, restrictive, and philistine by comparison to the diversity of landscapes, cosmopolitan mix of cultures and languages, and rich depth of artistic ideas that had fueled his artistic imagination back in Europe.
But whenever self-doubt, frustration or negative energy flooded to the surface, Stieglitz simply returned to his camera and transformed it into art. Some of Stieglitz’s most famous photographs were produced during these years, including: “Winter — Fifth Avenue,” (1893) “The Terminal,” (1892) and “Mending Nets” (1894).
The latter photograph Stieglitz exhibited in London, Berlin, Hamburg, and New York respectively between 1895 and 1898. As the 20th century loomed on the horizon Stieglitz had already achieved his goal of becoming a photographer with global critical acclaim. Putting personal ambitions momentarily aside, Stieglitz began to focus his attention on changing the landscape of the American art world indefinitely.
“Stieglitz’s first goal was to establish photography as a proper art form, and so he opened the 291 Gallery,” Rose says.
The influential gallery operated at 291 Fifth Avenue in New York between 1905 and 1917. Initially, it was conceived as a part gallery, part school, and part art institute that was principally concerned with celebrating the art of photography. Over time, it also became a launching pad for a whole host of European painters, such as Picasso, Matisse, Rodin, Cezanne, and Brancusi — all of whom were looking to sell their work on the American market for the very first time.
But this wasn’t an easy task, as Rose explains.
“Stieglitz would always buy the paintings of these European artists to begin with, even though they were worth very little at the time,” she says. “Eventually these paintings became priceless. But Stieglitz had no interest in money, he was famously generous and bought from everyone.”
Rose says Stieglitz faced one major obstacle upon opening the 291 Gallery: the American art buying public at that time were extremely traditional in their artistic tastes and fervently resisted modernist art, which they saw as distasteful and cheap. That rigid view gradually transformed over time and avant-garde art became normalized in the New York art world — but this was largely thanks to Stieglitz, who constantly shifted roles at the 291 Gallery between art curator, art promoter, art patron, art educator, and art enthusiast.
“Stieglitz’s second major career goal was to introduce European modernist art into America and all of the sophistication and cultural depth [that came with it],” says Rose. “It was one of the major projects of Stieglitz’s life, and he succeeded in it.”
Pioneering a movement
From all of these artists Stieglitz kept learning and educating himself about emerging artistic trends and concepts. From Strand he came to appreciate the architecture of New York buildings with a modernist sensibility; from Weber he learned about cubism; Dove introduced him to abstraction. Hartley, meanwhile, taught him about German expressionism while also introducing him to Wassily Kandinsky’s book “Concerning the Spiritual in Art,” which became a manifesto for the new non-representation in art.
Rose claims this constant interaction with his fellow artists eventually made Stieglitz draw two major conclusions concerning the notion of artistic truth. Firstly, he thought that if art was to have serious merit — which could in turn transcend human experience — it had to be constantly shifting, changing, growing, evolving, and in the process of becoming. He secondly believed that if an artist wanted to truly express their inner truth in all of its uncompromising-complex-abstraction, they had to stand apart from mainstream society. Stieglitz felt that society hampered the artistic spirit through an acceptance of conventional social mores and quotidian generalities.
Rose credits a great deal of Stieglitz’s artistic independence to his Jewish cultural heritage. She notes how in 1909 the New York avant-garde art dealer, photographer, and passionate promoter of modernist art, wrote to a letter a friend lamenting the recent death of his father, whom he affectionately described as “a Kunstmensch.” The word roughly translates from the German as “an art man.”
Modest roots, but deep
Stieglitz was already a world-famous photographer by the time he wrote that emotional epistle and clearly recognized just how important his father’s influence was on his artistic career. Edward Stieglitz was a German Jew who left Europe following the revolutionary upheavals across the continent in 1848, and wasn’t long in making his fortune in the wool trade after he emigrated to the United States.
Rose’s book notes how Edward Stieglitz’s economic success was part of a broader trend for a select number of German Jews who settled in the growing metropolis that New York was becoming in the mid-19th century. Typically they were peddler immigrants who quickly rose up the ranks to become retailers, then bankers — eventually accumulating enormous wealth that was kept within a number of close-knit Jewish dynasties.
But unlike most of his fellow Jewish men of finance who saw earning money as a gateway to power and status, Edward Stieglitz’s fine-tuned business acumen was really only a way of giving him ample time and space to focus his energy on his true vocational spiritual calling, which at just 48 years old he retired for: the pursuit of art.
As a secular Jew, Edward Stieglitz gave his children no education in Jewish observance or religious ritual; encouraging them instead to believe that artistic ideas could transform the human mind and soul while also making the world a more civilized and tolerant place.
“Alfred Stieglitz was a classic secular Jew of the late 19th century,” Rose says. “The Stieglitz family did not hide the fact that they were Jewish — it was just that being Jewish meant a cultural inheritance rather than a spiritual strain.”
“Stieglitz belonged to that middle European bourgeois culture which reached a high point — especially for Jews — in the late 19th century,” she adds. “These were cultivated people who saw literature and art as their religion.”
Back to the Fatherland
Rose claims the eight years Stieglitz spent in Germany between 1882 and 1890 gave him an invaluable introduction into a sophisticated European world of high culture and fine arts that in time would steer Stieglitz’s career in a direction that eventually saw him become one of the most celebrated American photographers, gallerists, and art collectors of his generation.
“Edward Stieglitz thought his children wouldn’t get a good education in the United States because anti-Semitism was very strong at that time in the educational institutions in New York,” Rose says.
A Jew being sent to Germany to avoid anti-Semitism may now seem ironic in retrospect. But given the stark contrasts between the Jews of Europe and the United States during this historical epoch, Edward Stieglitz’s decision was probably a wise one.
Rose’s biography notes that towards the end of the 19th century anti-Semitism in the United States led to blatant discrimination of Jews in universities especially. Conversely, the German-speaking countries of Central Europe witnessed a golden age for Jews following their emancipation during the 1860s in the Habsburg and Prussian Empires respectively.
It was under these liberating political circumstances that Alfred Stieglitz began his artistic education in the Prussian capital of Berlin. He started off by studying engineering, but quickly switched to photo chemistry, where he learned everything about photography. The camera was then a relatively new invention, and was still considered a technical scientific method for documenting events rather than an art form.
Rose claims Stieglitz often doesn’t receive the critical claim he rightly deserves because his artistic career was so long and varied — and because so much of his time was spent tirelessly promoting the careers of his fellow artists.
“Stieglitz began his artistic career in the 1880s and he didn’t die until 1946 — and so tremendous change in the American art world occurred during that time,” says Rose. “When Stieglitz stood in his gallery day after day talking about art he inspired a generation.”