Private collection, France
Yann Le Mouel, Paris, 23 May 2007, Lot 108
Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York, 2007
Other prints of this image:
Vanity Fair, February 1928, p. 49
Steichen the Photographer (The Museum of Modern Art, 1961), p. 27
Edward Steichen, A Life in Photography, (New York, 1963), pl. 28
Barbara Haskell, Edward Steichen (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 2000), cover and p. 79
Barbara Haskell, The American Century: Art and Culture 1900-1950 (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1999), pl. 246
Joanna Steichen, Steichen's Legacy: Photographs, 1895-1973 (New York, 2000), pl. 79
Cleveland Amory and Frederic Bradlee, Vanity Fair: A Cavalcade of the 1920s and 1930s (New York, 1960), p. 151
Diana Edkins, Vanity Fair: Photographs of an Age, 1914-1936 (New York, 1982), p. 83
Peter Galassi, American Photography 1890-1965 (The Museum of Modern Art, 1995), p. 125
Sarah Greenough, Joel Snyder, David Travis, and Colin Westerbeck, On the Art of Fixing a Shadow: One Hundred and Fifty Years of Photography (National Gallery of Art and Art Institute of Chicago, 1989), p. 284
Maria Morris Hambourg and Christopher Phillips, The New Vision: Photography Between the World Wars, Ford Motor Company Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, 1988), p. 33
In his autobiography, A Life in Photography, Steichen gave a vivid description of the sitting:
'The day I made . . . [these pictures] . . . Gloria Swanson and I had 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 recognized 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' (A Life in Photography, Chapter 8, unpaginated).
The photograph offered here is the definitive image from this session and was first published in the February 1928 issue of Vanity Fair. The Vanity Fair caption read, ‘A Much Screened Lady—Gloria Swanson: The star has made a film version of Miss Thompson, the [Somerset] Maugham story which is better known as ‘Rain.’’ Rain, concerning a prostitute and a reformer, was one of Maugham’s most famous stories, and Swanson was nominated for an Academy Award for her starring role. As Diana Edkins points out in her notes for this photograph, Swanson was, by the end of the 1920s, the highest-paid woman in the world. In addition to her persona as a femme fatale, she was also a businesswoman who produced her own films for more than a decade.
Edward Steichen was one of the few photographers to have made a seamless transition from the artistic realm of the Photo-Secession to the lucrative world of commercial photography. Like Swanson, he was at the top of his game when this photograph was taken. As chief photographer for Condé Nast, he continued the incisive, dramatic portraiture he had begun years earlier with such sitters as Eleanora Duse and J. Pierpont Morgan. Even those critical of his move to the world of commerce conceded that his celebrity portrait photography was superb. Of Steichen’s portraits for Vogue and Vanity Fair, Beaumont Newhall wrote, ‘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, 1964 edition, p. 190).
The print offered here was the actual print reproduced in the 1930 volume of Photographie, an annual published by the influential Arts et Metiers Graphiques in Paris. Committed to the cutting-edge photography of the day, the Photographie annuals sourced a variety of imagery from America and Europe and presented it in rich photogravure. In the 1930 volume, Steichen’s dramatic portrait of Swanson was reproduced alongside the avant-garde work of such artists as Man Ray, Brassaï, Maurice Tabard, André Kertész, Roger Parry, and Herbert Bayer.
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