Käsebier, Gertrude (1852–1934)

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Käsebier, Gertrude (1852–1934)

Turn-of-the-century American photographer who gained renown as one of the finest pictorialists in the country. Name variations: Gertrude Kasebier. Born Gertrude Stanton in Fort Des Moines, Iowa, on May 18, 1852; died in New York City, on October 13, 1934; daughter of John W. Stanton (an entrepreneur) and Gertrude Muncy (Shaw) Stanton (a homemaker); completed a four-year art course at the Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, New York, 1889–93; married Eduard Käsebier, on May 18, 1874; children: Frederick William (b. 1875); Gertrude Elizabeth O'Malley (b. 1878); Hermine Mathilde Turner (b. 1880).

Opened a professional portrait studio, Brooklyn, New York (1896); established reputation at the first Philadelphia Photographic Salon (1898); was one of the first two women admitted to The Linked Ring (1900); had photographs included in "The New School of American Photography" exhibition at the Royal Photographic Society, London (1900); was founding member of the Photo-Secession Group (1902); joined the Professional Photographers of New York (1906); resigned from the Photo-Secession Group (1912); named honorary vice-president of the Pictorial Photographers of America (1916); had last major exhibit of her work during her lifetime at Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Science (1929).

The history of photography in the late 19th and early 20th centuries is one of a nascent artistic form struggling for recognition alongside painting and poetry. Among the earliest photographic pioneers who sought to explore the new medium's artistic possibilities was the pictorialist and portrait photographer Gertrude Käsebier. In her portraits of high-profile personalities and well-known artists such as Auguste Rodin and Alfred Stieglitz, she elevated the role of the portrait photographer from technician to artist. As a founding member of the Photo-Secession Group, her allegorical pictorial photographs of women and children remain among the most arresting and recognizable photographs hanging in modern-day museums.

The key to artistic photography is to work out your own thoughts by yourself. Imitation leads to disaster.

—Gertrude Käsebier

Born Gertrude Stanton in Fort Des Moines, Iowa, on May 18, 1852, she was the first of two children of John W. and Muncy Stanton . During the 1859 Gold Rush, when Gertrude was eight, the family moved to the Colorado Territory and settled there for the next five years. The Stantons were not a typical pioneer family. Her father, an entrepreneur who owned and operated a saw mill, prospered greatly from a building boom and by expanding his mill to extract gold from ore. He was also the first mayor elected in the town of Golden, then the capital of the Colorado Territory. Her mother Muncy, Käsebier later recalled, "hadn't an atom of artistry in her whole being," but she was resourceful and adventuresome and passed on those traits to her daughter. She encouraged Gertrude to be self-reliant and express herself, and even entertained hopes that her daughter would one day become a musician. But music did not interest Gertrude; instead, from the time she was old enough to hold a pencil, she was interested in art. As one of the first white children to arrive in the area, she occasionally played with the nearby Native American children, but most of her time was spent alone drawing pictures.

In 1864, the family moved to Brooklyn, New York. From 1868 to 1870, Gertrude lived in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, with her maternal grandmother and attended the Moravian Seminary for Women, one of the first and best women's schools in the United States. She later described her grandmother as "an artist with a loom" who "was a model to me in many ways, and … what I have accomplished in art came to me through her."

On her 22nd birthday in 1874, Gertrude married Eduard Käsebier, a 28-year-old German businessman who had been living as a boarder in her mother's house. Eduard was a hard-working, ambitious shellac importer who came from a well-to-do family, and her parents appeared to have been pleased with the match. The young couple spent the next ten years in Brooklyn and then moved to a farmhouse in New Jersey. Together they raised three children: Frederick William (b. 1875), Gertrude Elizabeth (b. 1878), and Hermine Mathilde (b. 1880). The marriage, however, was largely unhappy. Käsebier's vivacious, artistic temperament was not suited to the steady, reliable disposition of her husband. She later claimed to have married impulsively following a broken romance with another man. It is clear that although they continued to share the same house, they were living largely separate lives by 1889, when Gertrude, then aged 37, convinced her husband to move back to Brooklyn so that she could enroll in the newly founded Pratt Institute of Art. By this time, the youngest of her children was nearing adolescence, and her ambitions to be an artist resurfaced with renewed vigor. Käsebier completed the four-year art program in 1893 and spent the next year abroad studying art and chaperoning a group of young American women enrolled in a summer program in France. It was during her time abroad in 1894 that she appears to have developed a serious interest in photography. She wrote and photographed two articles on French village life that appeared in The Monthly Illustrator and won a photo contest sponsored by the magazine. She also spent time in Germany where she apprenticed herself to a chemist so as to improve her understanding

of the technical aspects of the medium. Though Pratt had not offered any courses in photography, Käsebier had become an avid amateur photographer. She had begun taking pictures of her family in the late 1880s when the photographic process was simplified and cameras became portable. Of her earliest efforts, only First Photograph (c. 1885) remains.

Upon her return to the U.S. in 1895, she apprenticed herself to Samuel H. Lifshey, a Brooklyn portrait photographer. A year later, she set up her own dark room at her home and began a portrait business. Shortly after she opened her studio, her mother came to live with the family and assumed all housekeeping duties, leaving Käsebier free to concentrate on her work. In late 1897 or early 1898, Käsebier moved her studio to New York City and immediately distinguished herself. She was affable and went to great pains to relax her subjects before she photographed them, often keeping the camera out of sight until she was ready to take their picture. Unlike other portrait photographers of the time, she resisted using backdrops, props, or furniture. Instead, she focused her attention entirely on capturing the essence of the individual. Käsebier once explained that in producing a portrait she sought "to bring out in each photograph the essential personality that is variously called temperament, soul, humanity." Indeed, she was so attentive to character that some of her earliest portraits resemble Old Masters' paintings. In 1899, Alfred Stieglitz called her "beyond dispute the leading portrait photographer in the country." By 1901, her celebrity portraits were being reproduced in such magazines as the Ladies' Home Journal and Everybody's Magazine. She was also regularly commissioned by The World's Week, a well-respected arts and public affairs magazine, to photograph American notables, such as Mark Twain and Booker T. Washington. In his 1901 book Photography as a Fine Art, art critic Charles Caffin wrote: "Mrs. Kasebier will tell you that she is a commercial photographer; unquestionably she is an artist."

In addition to well-known personalities and well-to-do New Yorkers, Käsebier turned her camera on Native Americans; from about 1898 until 1912, she regularly invited Sioux Indians from Buffalo Bill's troupe to pose for her. Her most famous image from this photographic series is The Red Man (1902). She also created a series of portraits of the famous Indian musician, writer and teacher Zitkala-Sa (Gertrude Simmons Bonnin ).

During this time, Gertrude Käsebier was gaining renown as one of the finest pictorialist photographers in the country. Following European trends in photography, the American pictorialists regarded photography as a fine art, much like paintings or poetry. Her own reputation as an artistic photographer was established at the groundbreaking First Philadelphia Photographic Salon in the fall of 1898. Based on the model of the then-fashionable European photographic salon, the exhibition was organized by Stieglitz and sponsored jointly by the Photographic Society of Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Ten of Käsebier's photographs were exhibited and were roundly praised. One of the judges, the distinguished painter William Merritt Chase called Käsebier's work "as fine as anything Van Dyck has ever done."

Her photograph entitled The Manger was the sensation of the Second Philadelphia Photographic Salon the following year. The photograph was taken in a whitewashed stable in Newport, Rhode Island, and depicted a woman dressed in white, a long veil flowing from her head to the floor, holding what appears to be an infant swaddled in white. A print of that photograph sold for $100, more than had ever been previously paid for a pictorial photograph.

Motherhood, a subject Käsebier understood well enough from her own experience, was often explored in her photographs, and she frequently photographed her daughters together with their children. Her images raised motherhood to almost mythic heights, yet she avoided sentimentality. "Children are an awful bother," she wrote. "But a woman never reaches her fullest development until she's a mother. You have to pay the price." She once remarked that she saw photography as a medium of light, and her dramatic photographs beautifully expressed the complications, sorrows and joys of the mother-child relationship in contrasting tones of light and shadow. Käsebier's work was also influenced by the revolutionary theories of motherhood espoused by Friedrich Froebel, who emphasized the mother's role as teacher and liberator. One photograph, Mother and Child (1899), shows a mother coaxing a reluctant child through a doorway, ostensibly guiding the child toward independence; another, among her most famous images, entitled Blessed Art Thou Among Women (1899), depicts a mother standing in a doorway turned toward her daughter (who in turn, is looking directly into the camera), one hand protectively resting on the child's shoulders. On the wall behind the two figures hangs a print of The Annunciation. The woman in the photograph was poet and children's book author Agnes Lee Agnes Rand Freer ); the child was Lee's daughter Peggy. Shortly after the picture was taken, Peggy took ill and died. Five years later in 1904, Käsebier took a haunting photograph of Agnes Lee, The Heritage of Motherhood, a powerful statement on motherhood's darker side. In the murky picture, Lee is sitting by the water's edge. She wears a dark cloak over a white dress, her hands are folded, her head tilted back in grief.

In 1899, Gertrude Käsebier joined the influential New York Camera Club which operated under the leadership of Alfred Stieglitz. Stieglitz mounted a solo exhibition of her photographs, and the two quickly became close friends and fans of each other's work. Käsebier certainly owed much of her growing reputation as an artist to Stieglitz, but there is some evidence that her feelings for him may have gone beyond that of friendship and gratitude. On the back of a personal print of a portrait she had made of him was written "the only man I ever loved." Whatever the true nature of her feelings, her friendship with Stieglitz would remain her most important professional relationship for the next decade.

In 1900, she became one of two women admitted to the exclusive Linked Ring, a British pictorialists organization. That same year, her photographs were included in a large exhibition, "The New School of American Photography," organized at the Royal Photographic Society in London. During a trip abroad in 1901, she met Edward Steichen with whom she began a lifelong friendship.

In 1902, Gertrude Käsebier, along with Stieglitz, Steichen, Clarence White and others, formed the "Photo-Secession," an organization devoted to promote further recognition of photography as a fine art. Stieglitz started a new publication, the influential Camera Work (1903–17), and opened a gallery in New York, The Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession (soon nicknamed "291"). The first issue of Camera Work featured six reproductions of Käsebier's photographs, and for the next few years she exhibited regularly at 291. In 1905, she traveled to Paris and there embarked upon an extended photographic study of the artist Auguste Rodin, with whom she maintained a friendship until his death in 1915.

Throughout this time, Käsebier maintained her lucrative portrait business. This commercial activity increasingly put her at odds with Stieglitz, who believed her interest in professional photography compromised the artistic aims of the Photo-Secessionists. Käsebier did not share his view, as she found portrait photography artistically challenging as well. The need for money may have also been a motive in her continuing interest in commercial photography. Though she was, for all intents and purposes, estranged from her husband, Eduard Käsebier's protracted illness during this time (he died in December of 1909) seems to have prompted financial worries. At any rate, she was spending more time with professional portrait photographers than with the pictorialists. When she joined the Professional Photographers of New York in 1906, Stieglitz was furious. The final breach between Käsebier and Stieglitz occurred over a dispute about money for prints sold at a 1910 Photo-Secession exhibit in Buffalo. On January 1, 1912, Käsebier officially resigned from the Photo-Secession Group, a move which permanently severed her personal and professional relationship with Stieglitz, though she remained friends with White and Steichen.

Finally freed from her disappointing marriage with Eduard and the artistic struggles with Stieglitz, Käsebier pursued an unconstrained life of traveling and socializing. Though her later photographs never received the acclaim of her earlier ones, she remained dedicated and active. In 1912, she undertook an ambitious photographic study of Newfoundland; the following year, she began teaching at Clarence White's School of Photography in Maine and in New York. Four years later, in 1916, when White formed The Pictorial Photographers of America, he made Käsebier honorary vice-president in recognition of her "contribution to the art of photography."

Freer, Agnes Rand (1878–1972)

American poet. Name variations: (pseudonym) Agnes Lee; Mrs. Otto T. Freer. Born Agnes Rand on May 19, 1878, in Chicago, Illinois; died in Ashtabula, Ohio, in December 1972; daughter of William Henry Rand and Harriet Husted (Robinson) Rand; educated mainly in Switzerland; married second husband Otto Freer, in May 1911 (died 1932); children: Peggy (d. around 1900).

Agnes Rand Freer's books, written under the pseudonym of Agnes Lee, include Verses for Children (1901), The Border of the Lake (1910), The Sharing (1914), Faces and Open Doors (1922), New Lyrics and a Few Old Ones (1930). She also translated from the French Théophile Gautier's Enamels and Cameos and Fernand Gregh's The House of Childhood and contributed to many anthologies and magazines. Poetry magazine awarded Freer a prize for high achievement in the art of poetry.

By the early 1920s, Käsebier had moved her studio to Greenwich Village and was increasingly dependent on her daughter, Hermine Mathilde Turner , and granddaughter, to care for her and run the business. Käsebier was now completely deaf (a bout of scarlet fever as a young child had affected her hearing), increasingly lame and housebound. In 1925, at age 73, her sight began to fail. In spite of this physical deterioration, her professional reputation remained unaffected. Novice photographers like Imogen Cunningham and Paul Strand flocked to her studio to meet her. In 1929, the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences (now the Brooklyn Museum) honored her with a retrospective of her work. It was the last major exhibit of her photographs during her lifetime. Gertrude Käsebier died on October 13, 1934, at the age of 82.

sources and suggested reading:

Green, Nancy E. "Likenesses That Are Biographies," in Belles Lettres. Vol. 9, no. 3, p. 23.

Henisch, Heinz K., and Bridget A. Henisch. The Photographic Experience 1839–1914: Images and Attitudes. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994

Michaels, Barbara L. Gertrude Käsebier: The Photographer and Her Photographs. NY: Harry Abrams, 1992.

Newhall, Beaumont. The History of Photography. NY: The Museum Of Modern Art, 1982.

Whelan, Richard. Alfred Stieglitz: A Biography. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1995.

Suzanne Smith , freelance writer and editor, Decatur, Georgia