By 1918, the year this portrait was made, Alfred Stieglitz was fifty-four years old and had already changed the history of American art. He had founded and edited two important photography journals, Camera Notes and Camera Work. He had established the influential Photo-Secession in 1902 and exhibited leading art photography in a major art museum, the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo, in 1910. In his gallery ‘291’ he presented for the first time in America the most advanced European art by such artists as Cezanne, Rodin and Picasso prior to the 1913 Armory Show. In 1917, he had discovered, exhibited and published the first abstract and modernist photography of Paul Strand. With the close of his gallery and the demise of Camera Work he was poised for a whole new chapter in his life. Stieglitz had seen and exhibited Georgia O’Keeffe’s work a couple of years prior, but when he invited her in June 1918 to live with him at his family home in Lake George, New York, thus began one of the most fertile love affairs in American art.
Stieglitz had found his muse and O’Keeffe had found her benefactor. Stieglitz began the most prolific period of photographing in his entire life. It is as though he had to start over, to learn how to photograph again, in order to discover how to see and portray his new world. He photographed O’Keeffe incessantly. Stieglitz was so taken by her that he wrote to Arthur Dove in 1918, ‘O’Keeffe is a constant source of wonder to me, like Nature itself’ (as quoted in Alexandra Arrowsmith and Thomas West (eds.), Two Lives: Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz: A Conversation in Paintings and Photographs, Callaway Editions/The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., 1992, p. 56.).
Alfred Stieglitz conceived of composite portraits of individuals that would consist of hundreds of photographs made over a lifetime. His most complete of such portrait concepts is of Georgia O’Keeffe and comprises over 300 finished photographs made over a period of twenty years. Relatively early in the series, Stieglitz used every square inch of this photograph to portray his subject. In the image on offer here, she is posed powerfully in front of one of her charcoal drawings, perfectly framed within the composition of her Palo Duro Canyon, No. 15 Special (1916–1917), now in the collection of Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Sarah Greenough wrote of this most prolific and, arguably the most inspired, period in Stieglitz’s career, ‘Almost as soon as O’Keeffe arrived in New York from Texas on 9 June 1918 Stieglitz began photographing her with what she later described as “a kind of heat and excitement.” ... As his studies of her evolved, they became less about O’Keeffe as an artist and more about her as a woman and lover, and of the sexual passion they shared. ... He photographed her like the lover that he was, entranced with every inch of his beloved, but also studied her like a painter or sculptor analyzing every inch of a model’s body to understand how to portray the whole more accurately, as, for example, Rodin did.’ (Greenough, Alfred Stieglitz: The Key Set, Volume I, p. xxxv.)
X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy (XRF) readings confirm that the lot on offer here is a platinum print, with no other metals present. As such, it is a rare, exquisitely printed work of an image that so poetically captures the strength of each of these seminal 20th century artists individually, as well as the powerful result of their collaborative relationship.
Greenough’s authoritative reference, The Key Set, locates six additional prints from this negative. The other platinum prints are in the collections of The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; The Art Institute of Chicago; and the Hallmark Photographic Collection, Kansas City; one was deaccessioned from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York in 2006.Two other palladium prints have been located in private collections.