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Building the Collection: Alfred Stieglitz and His Circle

After the initial gift from the Alfred Stieglitz estate in 1949 of Marsden Hartley’s stark, primal New Mexico view, Landscape No. 5, and Arthur Dove’s abstract image of larval insect metamorphosis, Moth Dance [fig. 1], it was another two decades before additional significant paintings by the artists closely associated with Stieglitz joined the Gallery’s collection. Then in 1970, and in anticipation of the opening of the East Building, the Gallery for the first time bought a major American modernist painting using, in a further sign of the Gallery’s new direction, discretionary monies from the Andrew W. Mellon Fund: Marsden Hartley’s The Aero [fig. 2]. Part of an extended series of works Hartley did in Berlin just before and after World War I erupted, it is a prime example of his highly original idiom, a brilliant synthesis of French and German modern pictorial languages with other, more personal, esoteric visual and intellectual sources. The Aero is bookended in the Gallery’s collections by two paintings done in the artist’s home state of Maine at the beginning and end of Hartley’s career: the early 1908 painting Maine Woods (a 1991 gift from Bernard Brookman) and his late masterpiece from 1942, Mount Katahdin, Maine (a 1970 gift from Mrs. Mellon Byers). Together the three works broadly trace the course of Hartley’s career, from native son to peripatetic internationalist, to returning prodigal. In 1997 Dove’s Moth Dance was joined by his assemblage Rain, and in 2000 by the luminous and radiant Moon from the collection of Barney Ebsworth, 50 years after the initial Stieglitz bequest.[1]

John Marin’s fame rested first and foremost on his watercolors, so it is not surprising that only watercolors (no paintings) were included in the 1949 Stieglitz gift.[2] In 1986 and 1987 the Gallery became a major repository and an important center for the study of Marin’s work in all media when the artist’s son and namesake donated over 500 works on paper and a trove of 13 oils, including the remarkable Grey Sea (1938). More recently, the Gallery received one of Marin’s last and most important paintings, The Written Sea, from the Shein Collection in 2009 [fig. 3]. In these two evocations of water, Marin conveyed the fluidity and the gestural qualities of his watercolors into his oils. The calligraphic lines of The Written Sea, as well as its title, resonated with the experimental drip paintings of Jackson Pollock (American, 1912 - 1956) and the interest in collapsing traditional distinctions between drawing and painting, making and representing, of other abstract expressionists at midcentury.

The year of the John Marin Jr. gift, 1986, also marked the passing of Georgia O’Keeffe. In 1987, the Gallery received eight paintings from the O’Keeffe estate, which were all designated by her as additions to her husband’s bequest. The works ranged from the small, seven-inch-square study Shell No. I (1928) to one of O’Keeffe’s largest canvases, Sky with Flat White Cloud (1962), to six of the seven oils from her famous Jack-in-the-Pulpit series of 1930. The Jack-in-the-Pulpit subjects exemplified O’Keeffe’s remarkable ability to reinvent the traditional category of still-life floral painting, long associated with women artists, by investing it with organic, photographic, abstract, and sexual allusions. These encompassed the morbid 19th-century symbolist imagery of the poet Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs de Mal, the turn-of-the-century plant forms of art nouveau, and the hard-edged machine styles of art deco and precisionism of the 1920s. Among the gifts from the series was one of the three items O’Keeffe had originally lent to the Gallery in 1949, Line and Curve. Completing the Gallery’s holdings are Winter Road I, a 1995 gift from the Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation, and the remarkable abstraction from O’Keeffe’s annus mirabilis of 1930, Black White and Blue, another masterwork from Barney Ebsworth’s collection.[3]

In addition to Marin, Dove, and O’Keeffe, the trio of artists with whom Stieglitz maintained a lifelong association, the Gallery also acquired works by equally notable figures closely linked to Stieglitz in the history of American modernism. These were artists whom the argumentative, competitive photographer initially championed during his directorship of the 291 Gallery, but from whom he then broke for various professional and personal reasons: Edward Steichen (American, 1879 - 1973), Max Weber (American, born Poland, 1881 - 1961), and Charles Sheeler (American, 1883 - 1965). Steichen had suggested that Stieglitz show both paintings and photographs at 291 beginning in 1908, and, as his agent in Paris, had directed leading avant-garde artists to the gallery, including Henri Matisse (French, 1869 - 1954), Auguste Rodin (French, 1840 - 1917), Constantin Brancusi (Romanian, 1876 - 1957), and Marin. Le Tournesol (The Sunflower) [fig. 4] was one of Steichen’s last and most original efforts as a painter before he destroyed much of his work in a bonfire near his home outside of Paris and turned his full attention to photography in the 1920s.

Max Weber had also befriended members of the French avant-garde and brought back small examples of the work of Henri Rousseau (French, 1844 - 1910), Matisse, and Picasso to New York in his suitcase in 1909, objects that helped to educate Stieglitz and others about new European art. More than simply a passive conduit for others’ ideas, Weber made a number of original contributions to contemporary explorations of cubism and the fourth dimension, two of which entered the Gallery’s collection in 1970 and 1990: Rush Hour, New York, painted in 1915, and Interior of the Fourth Dimension from 1913. Charles Sheeler, Morton Livingston Schamberg (American, 1881 - 1918), and Paul Strand (American, 1890 - 1976) were dubbed “the trinity of photography” by Alfred Stieglitz just as 291 closed in 1917. Although Sheeler soon fell out with Stieglitz over a rather minor criticism of the older photographer’s platinum prints, he went on to produce a number of precisionist masterpieces that entered the canon of American modernism alongside works by O’Keeffe and Charles Demuth, two of the “Seven Americans” whom Stieglitz promoted assiduously during the 1920s and 1930s. Classic Landscape [fig. 5], a gift from the Ebsworth Collection in 2000, represents a profound synthesis of painting and photography, and stands as a culminating achievement in the dialogue between the two mediums that Stieglitz and Steichen had initiated at 291 three decades earlier.


[1] See Bruce Robertson, et al., Twentieth-Century American Art: The Ebsworth Collection (Washington, DC, 2000). Rain, consisting of twigs and rubber cement on metal and glass, is technically not classified as a painting and therefore falls outside the parameters of this catalog. In 1992 Arthur Dove’s son, William, gave the gallery a group of 23 small works on paper.

[2] The watercolors were Movement No. 9, Sea and Boat, Deer Isle, Maine (1927), Echo Lake, Franconia Range, White Mountain Country (1927), and Storm over Taos (1930).

[3] The Gallery also received an important group of O’Keeffe’s early charcoal drawings from the teens as a gift from the Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation in 1992. These gifts were designated as part of the Gallery’s Alfred Stieglitz Collection.