Gertrude Kasebier

In 1907, Everett Shinn sent John Sloan a postcard that reads: “Was up to be photographed today, great fun, being an artist, with temperament.” This quick note, illustrated with a spontaneous sketch, is one of my favorite items at the Museum. Yet it is just the sort of treasure—small, light-sensitive, and requiring curatorial explication—that usually remains in storage. The tale behind this off-hand sketch provided the inspiration for the exhibition Gertrude Käsebier’s Photographs of the Eight: Portraits for Promotion, which is on view through July 7, 2013.

The postcard to Sloan memorialized a photo-session, endured by Shinn, with the New York portrait photographer Gertrude Käsebier. Looking dapper as always, Shinn arrived in a patterned suit and voluminous overcoat, with his hat and cane. As was her habit, Käsebier tried several poses: standing, seated at a table, looking away from the camera, facing it. She took her time, putting her sitter at ease and getting to know both his features and his personality while she moved him about the studio. Her time-consuming practice was unusual, and it helped her to create compelling, artistic portraits—portraits that differed from the typical studio shots of the day. In the photographer’s words:

I have longed unceasingly to make pictures of people, not maps of faces, but pictures of real men and women as they know themselves, to make likenesses that are biographies, to bring out in each photograph the essential personality that is variously called temperament, soul, humanity.1

In his note to Sloan, Shinn mocked Käsebier’s efforts to portray him as “an artist, with temperament,” but she produced a memorable image. Seated and looking away from the camera, a cigarette in his hand, Shinn appears fashionable, aloof, and a bit moody.

1_gertrude_kasebier_photographing_shinn 3_everett_shinn
Gertrude Käsebier Photographing Shinn, 1907
Everett Shinn (1876–1953)
Pen and watercolor on cardboard, 5 1/4 x 7 3/4 inches
Gift of Helen Farr Sloan, 1978
Everett Shinn, c. 1907-1908
Gertrude Käsebier (1851–1934)
Platinum print, 8 x 6 1/2 inches
Gift of Helen Farr Sloan, 1978

The photograph would be widely published in 1908 on the occasion of an exhibition at the Macbeth Galleries with seven other artists: Sloan, Robert Henri, William Glackens, George Luks, Ernest Lawson, Arthur B. Davies, and Maurice Prendergast. To promote their exhibition—organized in protest against the conservatism of the National Academy of Design—the artists all visited Käsebier to have their portraits made. Käsebier’s photographs were distributed, along with images of the paintings in the exhibition, to newspapers and magazines, as part of a year-long campaign orchestrated by the artists to promote their work and their ideas about art. The artists would become known as “the Eight” months before the show opened, and the exhibition would become a watershed in the history of modern American art.

The day before the opening, the New York Herald trumpeted “Secession in Art,” and the World published a full-page article on the front page of their Sunday magazine. The World’s lengthy headline announced “New York’s Art War and the Eight Rebels Who Dared to Paint Pictures of New York Life (instead of Europe) and are Holding Their Rebellious Exhibition All by Themselves.” In the coming weeks, the Philadelphia Press and the New York Times covered the exhibition in detail, and articles appeared in national magazines, including American Art NewsCurrent LiteratureCollier’s,and The Craftsman. It was an impressive outpouring of interest for a 13-day exhibition of 63 paintings by artists who regularly exhibited in the city.

An off-hand, personal record of this historic event in American art, Shinn’s postcard is just the sort of document that attracts researchers from around the world to the Museum’s John Sloan Manuscript Collection. Displayed alongside a full set of Käsebier’s portraits of the Eight and several comic drawings that circulated among the group, Shinn’s postcard helps to tell the human story behind the infamous 1908 exhibition.

To see more work by Käsebier, visit Gertrude Käsebier’s Photographs of the Eight: Portraits for Promotion at the Delaware Art Museum and the related exhibition Gertrude Käsebier: The Complexity of Light and Shade at the University of Delaware. To learn more about Käsebier and her milieu, join us on March 1 at the Delaware Art Museum for a free lecture on “The New Woman in Black and White,” by Margaret D. Stetz, The Mae and Robert Carter Professor of Women’s Studies and Professor of Humanities, University of Delaware. The following day, the University of Delaware hosts a free symposium dedicated to Käsebier.

Heather Campbell Coyle
Curator of American Art

1 Giles Edgerton [Mary Fanton Roberts], “Photography as an Emotional Art: A Study of the Work of Gertrude Käsebier,” The Craftsman 12 (April 1907), 88.

This Curator Corner was posted on February 20, 2013.