Purchased by Bernice Lovett from East West Galleries, San Francisco, 1927
By descent to the present owners
Other prints of this image:
Theodore E. Stebbins, Jr., Karen E. Quinn, and Leslie Furth, Edward Weston: Photography and Modernism (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1999, in conjunction with the exhibition), cover and pl. 32
Nancy Newhall, ed., Edward Weston: The Flame of Recognition (Aperture, 1967), cover and p. 25
Beaumont Newhall, Supreme Instants: The Photographs of Edward Weston (Tucson: Center for Creative Photography, 1986, in conjunction with the exhibition), pl. 26
Manfred Heiting, ed., Edward Weston: 1886 - 1958 (Köln, 2001), p. 106
This early print of Edward Weston's famous Nautilus was purchased by Bernice Lovett in 1927, the year of the negative, and has remained in Lovett's family since that time. Alone among the few Weston nautilus shells that have appeared on the market in recent decades, this print has an unbroken family provenance from the time it was made in 1927 until now.
The present photograph—printed on matte-surface paper, on a large mount, and with Weston's early signature—represents the definitive early state of the image. Later in the 1920s, Weston would make the transition to paper with a glossy surface, and these later prints present a very different account of the subject. The photograph offered here is mounted to thick buff paper, and Weston's signature and date on the mount, which appear directly under the photograph in later printings, are located here in the lower right corner. This print is not numbered, as later prints are, and its presentation and provenance confirm that it is among the earliest prints of the image extant.
The photograph was purchased by Bernice Lovett from the East West Galleries, located in the San Francisco Women's Club Building at the corner of Mason and Sutter Streets. East West was a pioneering gallery that showed not only California artists, but also the works of Picasso, Braque, and Derain, among others. An article in the Berkeley Daily Gazette for 17 December 1927 praised the gallery's progressive payment plan for works of art, over the span of one year. According to the Gazette, this 'extended budget plan' was 'backed by the artist-minded business men' of the community.
Bernice Githens Lovett (1902 – 1998) was descended from a pioneer Oregon family, and began taking photographs as a teenager. Both she and her future husband, Hobart McKinley Lovett, graduated from the University of California at Berkeley in the mid- 1920s, she as a math major. During the Second World War, she designed torpedoes and later helped invent frozen peas. According to a family member, Bernice and her husband
'. . . had a very loving but eccentric life, rarely leaving the state of California. They collected (and took) photographs and had an extensive collection of books about California, as well as first editions by people who wrote about California . . . from Mark Twain to William Saroyan and Robinson Jeffers. Bernice's first love, however, was Modernist and post-Modernist jewelry, and The Lovett Collection is known for its works by Peter Macchiarini, Merry Renk, and others from the 1950s to the 1970s.
'Many of their friends were Bay-area artists or photographers, and while they knew Ansel Adams, Willard Van Dyke, and Imogen Cunningham, they were not personally acquainted with Edward Weston. They admired his work, however, and often tried to duplicate his techniques.
'The Nautilus Shell was bought after Bernice saw the photograph in the East West Galleries in 1927. The print's price, $10, was more than she could afford, but Bernice arranged with the Gallery to pay for it on the installment plan . . . fifty cents a month until it was hers. When the final fifty cents was paid, Bernice carried the photograph home in a Kodak paper box.
'There the print stayed for almost 75 years. The cottage in the Berkeley hills, built by Bernice's father as wedding gift, faced the Golden Gate, and the west-facing wall was glass. None of the photographs they either took or collected were ever displayed for fear of sun damage.
'In a tiny twist of fate, several years after buying the Nautilus, Bernice had a photograph of her own hang alongside one of Weston's. In 1932, Lloyd La Page Rollins, Director of the de Young Museum in San Francisco, lent support to the f.64 group's work and invited them to submit prints to the Museum's California Trees exhibit. Bernice's Eucalyptii lost the $100 first prize to Edward Weston's Mojave Desert—Joshua Tree, but it was a thrill she never forgot.'
Edward Weston's single gleaming nautilus shell before a plain dark background exemplifies the apex of his achievement as a photographer. The image's simple composition belies the complexity of its conception and its making, the years of evolution in Weston's own vision and the countless trials with objects before his camera. One of the most famous photographs ever made, the Nautilus deserves its wide and far-ranging reputation: as a benchmark of modernism in the history of photography, and in the broader category of 20th-century art as a whole.
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