Gertrude Käsebier


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Photographer. Widely acknowledged as the leading American portrait photographer at the turn of the twentieth century, she also ranked as the most important woman associated with pictorialism. Born in Fort Des Moines (now Des Moines), Iowa, Gertrude Stanton moved with her family to the Colorado Territory in 1860 and then to Brooklyn in 1864. From 1868 until 1870 she studied at the Moravian Seminary for Women in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. In 1874 she married Eduard Käsebier, a German immigrant businessman. After fifteen years as a wife and mother in Brooklyn and rural New Jersey, in 1889 she entered the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn to study painting. She graduated in 1893 but stayed on for further instruction for two additional years, which bracketed the year of 1894–95 in France and Germany. There she traveled, continued to study painting, and sought technical instruction in photography. After opening a Manhattan portrait studio about 1897, she soon achieved success with artistry derived from the poses and lighting of old master paintings. Banishing the era's standard paraphernalia, such as backdrops and furniture, she made her mark with dignified and broadly composed renditions of human character. Her subjects included such notables as Mark Twain, Booker T. Washington, Stanford White, and his celebrity paramour, Evelyn Nesbitt. Her many particularly sensitive likenesses of other photographers and artists included portraits of Alvin Langdon Coburn, Robert Henri, and Rodin (who sat for her in Paris during one of several trips abroad). She also sought out and photographed American Indians, fondly recalling their companionship during her Colorado years in childhood. Unlike most other turn-of-the-century photographers of Indians, she pursued neither ethnographic nor sentimental aims but revealed her sitters' essential humanity in elegant, deeply respectful portrayals.

By the late 1890s Käsebier had also found recognition as an art photographer. She soon participated actively in the Photo-Secession, and her prints were featured in Camera Work. She specialized in photographs of women and children together. A small number of these, including several that brought her fame at the time, are literary, staged compositions that to a later age seem inauthentic and mawkish. In most, however, Käsebier represented unaffected tenderness among her subjects. Many of these images incorporated the period's progressive ideas about the interaction of mothers with their children. In their formal integrity and luxurious printing, the photographs also validate the inherent worth of the early years of life. Despite straightforward effects, her process was in fact often complex, including retouching and re-photographing of negatives. About 1907–8 she began to withdraw from the Photo-Secession, and in 1916 she numbered among founders of the Pictorial Photographers of America. By this time she had accomplished nearly all of her best work. Her eyesight failing, she ceased photographing in the late 1920s. She died at her home in New York.

Subjects: Art.

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