Edward Steichen - Photographs London Wednesday, May 25, 2022 | Phillips

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  • Provenance

    Collection of Joanna Steichen, the photographer's widow
    Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York, 2001

  • Literature

    Vanity Fair, February 1928, p. 49
    C. Sandburg, Steichen the photographer, New York: MoMA, 1961, p. 27
    E. Steichen, A life in photography, London: W. H. Allen, 1963, pl. 128
    Vanity Fair: Photographs of an Age, 1914-1936, London: Thames & Hudson, 1983, p. 93
    M. M. Hambourg et al., The New Vision: Photography Between the World Wars, New York: The Met, 1989, p. 33
    P. Galassi et al., American Photography, 1890-1965, New York: MoMA, 1995, p. 125
    B. Haskell, The American Century: Art and Culture 1900-1950, New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1999, pl. 246
    B. Haskell, Edward Steichen, New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 2000, cover and p. 79
    J. Steichen, Steichen’s Legacy: Photographs, 1895-1973, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000, pl. 79
    A. W. Ewing et al., Edward Steichen: In High Fashion: The Condé Nast Years 1923-1937, London: Thames & Hudson, 2008, pl. 36, p. 57

  • Catalogue Essay

    Edward Steichen’s iconic image of Gloria Swanson is one of the most celebrated portraits of the 20th Century and remains captivating nearly a century after its making. The photograph was the result of a 1924 sitting for Vogue magazine that Steichen recounted in his autobiography, A Life in Photography: ‘The day I made the picture, Gloria Swanson and I had a long session, with many changes of costume and different lighting effects. At the end of the session, I took a piece of black lace veil and hung it in front of her face. She recognised the idea at once. Her eyes dilated, and her look was that of a leopardess lurking behind leafy shrubbery, watching her prey. You don’t have to explain things to a dynamic and intelligent personality like Miss Swanson. Her mind works swiftly and intuitively.’

    The portrait was a collaboration between two highly accomplished professionals. In many ways, photographer and subject were kindred souls; both possessed an extraordinary ambition to excel in their respective fields, and both maintained successful high-profile careers throughout their long lives. Swanson was one of few actresses to make the transition from the silent-film era to sound, and thence to theatre and television. Steichen was that rare photographer who produced masterful images as a Pictorialist, a Modernist, an aerial and combat photographer, and as a photographer of fashion and celebrity. Steichen and Swanson’s interaction in the studio on that day in 1924 illustrates the intense devotion of each to their own objective: Swanson to perpetuate her allure, and Steichen to capture his subject at her most alluring.

    Vanity Fair published this image in its February 1928 issue to coincide with the release of the film Sadie Thompson, starring and produced by Swanson, which had generated a fair amount of notoriety for its depiction of a jazz-age fallen woman attempting to find redemption on a tropical island. Swanson received an Academy Award nomination for the role, and Steichen’s portrait became the definitive image of the star.

    Few photographers have had as long, rich, and as varied a career as Edward Steichen, characterised throughout by an extraordinary intensity of vision and a devotion to the ever-changing craft of photography. Portraits were a constant throughout his career, and he seemed to work best when presented with a subject willing to actively engage with the process. His early studies of Rodin, Eleonora Duse, and J. P. Morgan reveal Steichen’s skill at working with charismatic, sometimes volatile, personalities. His images of Isadora Duncan and members of her dance troupe upon the Acropolis introduced a performative element to his images. His remarkable talent for photographing people is most apparent in the work he executed for Condé Nast beginning in the early 1920s, of which Gloria Swanson is a prime example. Photography historian Beaumont Newhall succinctly summed up Steichen’s accomplishments during this phase of his career: ‘These photographs are brilliant and forceful; they form a pictorial biography of the men of letters, actors, artists, statesmen of the 1920s and 1930s, doing for that generation what Nadar did for the mid-nineteenth century intellectual world of Paris’ (The History of Photography, p. 190).

    Early prints of this image appear infrequently on the market. In the past 25 years, only five other early prints have appeared at auction.



Gloria Swanson, New York

Gelatin silver print.
24.1 x 19.1 cm (9 1/2 x 7 1/2 in.)
Titled and dated in unidentified hands in pencil on the verso.

£240,000 - 340,000 

Sold for £277,200

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Head of Department, London


Yuka Yamaji
Head of Photographs, Europe


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London Auction 25 May 2022