Gertrude Käsebier - Photographs New York Monday, March 31, 2014 | Phillips

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  • Catalogue Essay

    The six works in the current section celebrate multiple facets of womanhood in a variety of intimate moments. Be it as a doting mother, a fearless protector, a bereaving widow, a woman of social leisure, a preening dame, or simply as deeply pensive. The photographs span sixty years, revealing themes that have remained universal and timeless to women and allude to the endless roles in which they have been commemorated in photography. The works are by no means a catalogue of female prototypes, but rather a handful of personalized manifestations thereof, proving six endearing moments whose understated beauty and charm have been eternalized under the sensitive photographers who caught them.

    Heinrich Kuehn’s Miss Mary bei der Morgentoilette, 1907, (lot 93), depicts a lady in the intimate confines of her boudoir. She is standing in a room awash with natural light, which endows the space with an ethereal glow. The fact that she is bending over to inspect herself in the mirror insinuates that she is likely at the point of going out, which heightens the emotional, anticipatory undertone of the subject and the scene as a whole. The translucence of her dress adds a romantic flair to her appearance. The photographer is placed far enough that the subject is likely unaware of his presence, allowing her to retain her sense of self without following the strict social dictums of propriety in the presence of others.

    The image was taken at the turn of the last century and is infused with an unmistakable pictorial atmosphere. Indeed, photography was a relatively nascent field, and in an effort to gain the respect of art critics had set out to mimic the tenets of painting. It is of no surprise therefore, that Kuehn’s majestic image is deeply Impressionistic. Like the compellingly beautiful interior scenes by the painters Mary Cassat and Berthe Morisot, Kuehn presented a soft and loving depiction of a woman in her natural space, with her social guard down.

    Likewise, Robert Demachy’s Solitude, circa 1890 (lot 95) and Émile Joachim Constant Puyo’s The Straw Hat, 1906 (lot 96) are pictorial depictions of women. In the former the subject appears mid-thought, her hair up in a casual bun and her dress simple and relaxed. Her silhouette is more pronounced than her features, turning her from an individual to an emblem of women. In the latter image, the subject likewise appears without the presence of a man. Unlike Demachy’s subject, Puyo’s woman is dressed in the finest of garbs, most likely at a social event. And yet, the photographer chose to isolate her from the context, leaving viewers to appreciate her beauty and status on her own terms only.

    George Henry Seeley’s The Mourning Veil, 1904 (lot 97) and Gertrude Käsebier’s Mother and Child, 1903, the current lot, also present their subjects alone, but within the context of family life. Seeley’s subject is clad in black garments and set against an equally dark background. The near blending of body and background allows only her face to stand out, leaving viewers with little to study but her softened expression of bereavement. In that regard Seeley’s work is not a portrait of an individual but of a state of mind. Similarly, Käsebier’s photograph is a deeply expressive image. The woman is seen caring for her young infant as she lovingly leans over. As a platinum print the image glows, replicating the illuminating happiness of new motherhood. Consuelo Kanaga’s She is a tree of life to them, 1950 (lot 98) also examines the role of a mother as a protector. However, as opposed to the diffused face of Käsebier’s mother, the strong features of Canaga’s subject are clearly shown. She is depicted from a low vantage point, which further accentuates her strength, asserting her fierce protection of her children.


Mother and Child

Platinum print.
6 1/2 x 7 1/8 in. (16.5 x 18.1 cm)
Signed in pencil on the recto.

$8,000 - 12,000 

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