Born March 27, 1879, in the small duchy of Luxembourg and baptized Eduard Jean, Steichen moved to America with his parents when he was a toddler and the family settled in the Midwest. He was raised in the very strict traditions of the Catholic Church and attended school at Pio Nino College and Catholic Normal School in St. Francis, a suburb of Milwaukee from 1888 to 1894. It was at this school that Edward discovered an interest in art and began to draw and paint. After completing grammar school in 1894, Steichen served a four-year apprenticeship at the American Fine Arts Company, a lithography company in Milwaukee, and then worked for the firm for two years, rising to the rank of designer.
Throughout the 1890s Steichen pursued his artistic ambitions in painting and, in 1895, bought his first camera. He was a driving force behind the establishment of the first art school in Milwaukee, the Milwaukee Art Students’ League, where he studied under painters Richard Lorenz and Robert Schade. He also spent hours at Milwaukee’s Public Library reading about art and artists, and about pictorial photography in Alfred Stieglitz’s Camera Notes. Among the painters he admired at this early age were George Frederick Watts, Claude Monet, and, above all, James Abbott McNeill Whistler. In the pages of Camera Notes he discovered the world of pictorial photography and the idea of photography as an art form. Pictorial photographers did not wish merely to copy nature, but sought to suggest life beyond the appearances of everyday reality. They achieved their soft-focused images, which suggested a dreamlike world, by manipulating the negative and plates during the printing process. The pictures Steichen encountered in Camera Notes influenced his style of photography, which became romantic in its sensibilities and pictorial in its technique. Other powerful influences upon the young Steichen were the writings of the Belgian Symbolist poet Maurice Maeterlinck, especially his essay “Silence” and his books The Treasure of the Humble (1896) and Wisdom and Destiny (1898), and the writings of Arthur Wesley Dow, whose book Composition promoted the concept that abstract design was the basis of all great art. From his earliest work with the camera and in painting, Steichen had learned to appreciate the unique, two-dimensional aspects of each medium and often incorporated the principle of abstract design into his own compositions. In 1899 three of his photographic prints were shown at the Second Philadelphia Salon, his first exhibition.
By 1900 the adventurous and ambitious young man had saved enough funds to travel abroad to further his artistic studies and to pursue his ambitions as a painter and photographer. On his way to Paris Steichen stopped briefly in New York and visited Alfred Stieglitz, the dean of American pictorial photography at the time. This encounter would change both men’s lives considerably. Stieglitz was not only impressed by Steichen’s photographs, three of which he purchased, but was equally taken by the beauty of his paintings, drawings, and lithographs.
Although Steichen initially went abroad to study painting at the Académie Julian, he spent very little of his two years in Europe at formal studio classes. Like all art students in Paris, he gravitated toward the Louvre. He also visited the Luxembourg Palace where he saw works by Monet, Manet, Pissarro, and Sisley. In addition, he saw paintings by Vincent van Gogh at an exhibition held by a fellow photographer in his studio.
In the fall of 1900 Steichen visited London where he met the American photographers Frederick Holland Day and Alvin Langston Coburn and participated in the New School of American Photography exhibition organized by Day. While in London he received his first big break, a commission to photograph the artist George Frederick Watts. Soon he was photographing the most famous artists and writers of his day including Fritz Thaulow, Alphonse Mucha, Franz Stuck, Paul-Albert Besnard, Maurice Maeterlinck, and Auguste Rodin.
Though he was becoming known predominantly as a photographer, Steichen continued his career as a painter, with quite a bit of success. The subjects of many of his early paintings were portraits and nocturnal, woodland scenes in which the moonlight helped create a mood of mystery. In 1901 one of his paintings was accepted into the prestigious and highly competitive Salon, and he had his first one-person show of photographs and paintings at La Maison des Artistes in Paris in the summer of 1902.
In addition to professional success, Steichen had good fortune in his personal life. In the summer of 1901 he met Clara Smith, his first wife. The two eventually married and had two daughters, Mary and Kate. Unfortunately, this marriage would not last and ended in a bitter divorce in 1922.
In 1902 Steichen returned to the United States to pursue his dual careers as photographer and painter. By the fall he had rented an apartment on the top floor of a brownstone at 291 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan and set out his shingle advertising for work. He quickly became the leading portrait photographer of his day with clients such as J. Pierpont Morgan.
In 1905, after a successful exhibition of his paintings in New York, Steichen moved his family to larger quarters across the hall from 291 to 293 Fifth Avenue, a change of address that proved momentous for the history of photography and art in America. Soon after the family vacated 291, Steichen convinced Stieglitz to open the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession in the available space and the two began mounting exhibitions of contemporary photography. Steichen and Stieglitz championed the idea of photography as a fine art. The Little Galleries, or 291 as it became known, also promoted avant-garde European and American art. Steichen was responsible for many of the exhibitions held at 291 over the years.
Exhausted by his activities at the gallery and wanting to concentrate on his painting Steichen returned to Paris with his wife Clara and their daughters in the autumn of 1906 and remained overseas until the outbreak of World War I. During this second sojourn in Paris, Steichen saw paintings by Paul Cézanne and by the Fauves, including works by Henri Matisse and Kees van Dongen, and their American followers Arthur B. Carles and Alfred H. Maurer. While in Paris, Steichen arranged for the first shows of modern European art in America, at 291. Drawings, lithographs, and watercolors by Rodin, Matisse, Cézanne, and Picasso graced the walls of his former apartment in Manhattan. Steichen was instrumental in introducing modernism to American audiences. He also exhibited his own work at 291 and elsewhere while abroad.
Although Steichen was fascinated by the new expressions in art that he saw in the paintings by Cézanne, Matisse, van Dongen, and Carles, he was slow to adapt the modernist aesthetic in his own art. He did however champion new movements, and in 1908 founded the New Society of American Artists in Paris along with Arthur B. Carles, Patrick Henry Bruce, Jo Davidson, John Marin, Alfred Maurer, and Max Weber to help promote exhibitions of new art. Two years later the group would exhibit at 291 under the title Younger American Painters. Also in 1908 the Steichens rented a farmhouse in the village of Voulangis par Crècy-en Brie, a few miles northeast of Paris. Fellow American Arthur B. Carles was also resident in Voulangis during that summer and often came to visit Steichen. Carles’s presence may have inspired Steichen to change his approach to art. After 1908 Steichen’s palette began to brighten and he began to use a less naturalistic style in some of his paintings and photographs. He did not completely abandon his earlier manner though, and continued to create tonal, mood-filled, and mysterious canvases that were praised for their lyrical qualities.
At the outbreak of war in 1914, the Steichens returned to America and settled in New York. The years between 1914 and 1919 were not very productive ones for the artist, though he did continue to paint and create photographs. It was during this time that he changed the spelling of his first name from Eduard to Edward.
In 1917 Steichen joined the United States Army as a volunteer and was commissioned first lieutenant. Eventually, he rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. He was sent to France with the American Expeditionary Forces and remained there in uniform until 1919. He served as part of the American Photographic Division in France and offered expert guidance in all matters of aerial photography. He helped train pilots to use the cameras, lenses, and plates they needed to take pictures during reconnaissance missions.
Steichen returned to America briefly after the war, but longed to return to France. He was stationed in Washington, D. C. until he was retired from the Army in October 1919. Soon after his retirement, and with a divorce from Clara looming, he returned to his beloved Voulangis to find peace and rest. He resumed his pursuits of photography, painting, and, his most rewarding passion, gardening. Steichen became an expert at growing and breeding delphiniums. He traveled back and forth to America frequently, but was in France quite regularly between 1920 and 1923. According to the artist these years were among the most productive of his life. During this time his style of painting and photography underwent a dramatic change; he began to create works that were much more abstract than any of his previous images. The photographic work he had experienced during the war infused him with a new passion for sharp-focused pictures and he developed a keener interest in the new technical advances in photography. He became fascinated with physics, mathematics, and botany and his new interests affected his painting. He was also intrigued with geometrical forms in nature and he incorporated these images into his paintings. He experimented with this new, nonrealistic, abstract style until 1923.
The year 1923 was one of remarkable changes for Steichen, both professionally and personally. He became the chief photographer for Condé Nast Publications and he began working for the J. Thompson agency creating advertising photographs. In addition he began a new romantic relationship with Dana Desboro Glover, an aspiring photographer and actress. They would remain together until her death in 1957. The most dramatic event of all in 1923 however, was Steichen’s decision to abandon painting as a profession completely. At his home in Voulangis, and with the aid of his gardener, he burned all the paintings remaining in his possession. An often-repeated tale relates that Steichen burned his works after his gardener copied one of his canvases with such ease and skill that it convinced Steichen that painting was nonsense. Though this event may have contributed to his decision, the war, Steichen maintained, was the real reason he burned his canvases. World War I taught him that photography was the path through which he could make a true contribution to the world. After destroying all the canvases at Voulangis, Steichen left France to start a new life in the United States.
Photography became Steichen’s main profession for the remainder of his career. In the 1920s his approach to photography changed from the early pictorial and soft-focused images to straight photography in which the negative was not manipulated at all. Between 1923 and 1938 Steichen was the primary fashion photographer for Vogue and the main celebrity portraitist for Vanity Fair. His talent for photography as an art form was acknowledged when he was asked to select photographs for inclusion in the well-known journal, United States Camera Annual. He was also accorded the high honor of being the first the Director of the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He served in that post from 1947 until 1962 and organized over forty exhibitions, including “The Family of Man,” one of the most influential shows in the history of photography. This landmark exhibition consisted of photographs of family relationships from around the world and toured hundreds of cities in sixty-nine countries beginning in 1955.
Steichen was again called to active duty during World War II. He served as the Director of the United States Naval Photographic Institute. He was released from service in the Navy with the rank of captain in 1946. His World War II experience convinced him of the potential of photography as a means of documentation and reinforced his belief in it as an art form.
In 1960, just shy of his eighty-first birthday, Steichen remarried, this time to Joanna Taub, who was nearly fifty-five years his junior. Steichen’s brother-in-law Carl Sandburg had introduced the two in 1959. Steichen remained married to Joanna until his death in 1973.
Edward Steichen is heralded as one of the most famous photographers in the history of American art. In 1961 the Museum of Modern Art in New York mounted a one-person retrospective of his photography and announced plans for the Edward Steichen Photography Center. His autobiography, A Life in Photography, was published in 1963, the same year he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President John F. Kennedy. Long recognized for his talent as a photographer, Steichen has been neglected as a painter. Exhibitions of his paintings and watercolors at the Heckscher Museum in Huntington, New York in 1985 and at the Federal Reserve in Washington, D. C. in 1988, however, have helped to reestablish his prominence as a gifted, experimental, and creative painter.
Edward Steichen died, March 25, 1973, two days shy of his ninety-fourth birthday at his farm in West Redding, Connecticut.
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