Lot 6
  • 6

Edward Steichen 1879-1973

bidding is closed


  • Edward Steichen
  • 'the pond -- moonlight'
multiple gum bichromate print over platinum, signed and dated by the photographer in crayon on the image, mounted, matted, framed, 1904


The photographer to Alfred Stieglitz as agent

Acquired by John Aspinwall from the above, 1906

By descent to Mrs. John Aspinwall Wagner, Newburgh, New York 

By descent to Justine Wagner Blodgett, Shoreham, Vermont

Paul Katz, New York

Acquired by the Gilman Paper Company from the above, 1983


The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Waking Dream: Photography's First Century: Selections from the Gilman Paper Company Collection, March - July 1993; and traveling to:

Edinburgh, City Arts Center, Edinburgh International Festival, August - October 1993

Washington, D.C., The National Gallery of Art, June - September 1994

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Pictorialism in New York, 1900 - 1915, February - May 1998

Whitney Museum of American Art, Edward Steichen, October 2000 - February 2001

Whitney Museum of American Art, The American Century: Art and Culture, 1900 - 1950, Part 1, April - August 1999 


This print:

Pierre Apraxine and Lee Marks, Photographs from the Collection of the Gilman Paper Company (White Oak Press, 1985), pl. 131

Barbara Haskell, Edward Steichen (Whitney Museum of American Art, 2000, in conjunction with the exhibition), pl. 23

Maria Morris Hambourg, Pierre Apraxine, et al., The Waking Dream: Photography's First Century: Selections from the Gilman Paper Company Collection (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1993, in conjunction with the exhibition), pl. 146

The Metropolitan Museum of Art's print:

Weston Naef, The Collection of Alfred Stieglitz: Fifty Pioneers of Modern Photography (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1978), pl. 63

William Innes Homer, Alfred Stieglitz and the Photo-Secession (Boston, 1983), pl. 60

Dennis Longwell, Steichen: The Master Prints 1895 - 1914, The Symbolist Period (The Museum of Modern Art, 1978), pl. 35

Sarah Greenough et al., On the Art of Fixing a Shadow: One Hundred and Fifty Years of Photography (National Gallery of Art and The Art Institute of Chicago, 1989, in conjunction with the exhibition), pl. 172

Jean Clair, Guy Cogeval, Debora Silverman, et al., Lost Paradise: Symbolist Europe (The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, 1995, in conjunction with the exhibition), pl. 167, cat. 414

Joel Smith, Edward Steichen: The Early Years (Princeton University Press and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1999), pl. 26

The Museum of Modern Art's print:

Joanna Steichen, Steichen's Legacy: Photographs, 1895 - 1973 (New York, 2000), pl. 152

Peter Galassi, American Photography 1890 - 1965 from The Museum of Modern Art (The Museum of Modern Art, 1995, in conjunction with the exhibition), pl. 81

Barbara Haskell, The American Century: Art and Culture, 1900 - 1950 (Whitney Museum of American Art, 1999, in conjunction with the exhibition), pl. 71

Other prints of this image:

Camera Work Number 14 (New York, 1906), pl. IV, as 'Moonlight: The Pond'

Catalogue Note

Edward Steichen’s ‘The Pond—Moonlight’ ranks among the photographer’s greatest achievements in Pictorial photography.  An aesthetic and technical tour-de-force, the print of ‘The Pond—Moonlight’ offered here shows Steichen operating at the very peak of his early powers.  The painterly qualities of this masterpiece, combined with its photographic realism, its large scale, and its supreme technical virtuosity, place it alongside Steichen’s magnificent study of the Flatiron Building as the photographer’s most ambitious artistic statement; together, they are the culmination of the movement known as Pictorialism.  Operatic in their intention and in their effect, the ‘Pond’ and ‘Flatiron’ series are the young Edward Steichen’s bravura confirmation of the validity of the photographic medium.  As one critic wrote in The Photogram of 1905, there was an answer to ‘that addled question in the short catechism of the camera: “Is photography an art?” with all its bungling answers in extenso. “Let the answer be: Yes: it is Steichen.”’

Like the series of Steichen’s ‘Flatiron Building’ now in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, only three examples of ‘The Pond—Moonlight’ are known, and as in the ‘Flatiron’ series, each in this trio is different in tone, in atmosphere, and in subtle detail.  In addition to the present photograph, there is the print of ‘The Pond’ that Stieglitz gave the Metropolitan in 1933; and the print that Steichen himself gave to The Museum of Modern Art in 1967.  Although created from the same negative, the three prints are the results of different photographic processes and are a testament to Steichen’s artistic goals and to his finely honed abilities as a printer.  Multiple-process printing, on this large scale, was practiced by no one as it was practiced by Steichen.

The negative for ‘The Pond—Moonlight’ was made in the wetlands around Marmaroneck, New York, on Long Island Sound, near the home of Charles H. Caffin (1854 – 1918), the English-born art critic who had championed Steichen’s work in his volume Photography as a Fine Art (see Lot 5).  After the birth of their first daughter in July of 1904, the Steichens sought refuge from the stifling heat of their top-floor Manhattan apartment, gratefully accepting an invitation to spend August with Caffin and his wife Caroline.  The August visit stretched into September when Steichen suffered a bout of typhoid and was hospitalized for three weeks.  A gelatin silver print of a closely-related image, entitled ‘Autumn,’ now in the J. Paul Getty Museum, is inscribed ‘Autumn, Marmaroneck, N. Y., 1904,’ by Alfred Stieglitz on the reverse, a likely indication that the present photograph was made in September, during the latter part of the Steichens’ stay (The J. Paul Getty Museum Journal, Volume 16, 1988, fig. 93).

The woods at dusk, or in moonlight, was one of Steichen’s favorite subjects, one to which he returned time and again in the years before the first World War, in paintings as well as photographs.  Although few of his paintings survive—he destroyed most of them in his notorious bonfire in Voulangis after the war—their titles echo his obsession with the effects of glimmering light in nocturnal settings: ‘The Road to the Lake—Moonlight,’ ‘The Moonlight Promenade—The Sea,’ ‘Balcony, Nocturne, Lake George,’ and ‘Moonlit Landscape,’ among others.  A rare surviving painting from that period, now in the Whitney Museum of Art, shows parallel rows of trees in an unidentified glen, the moon rising to the top of the composition, its light reflected in the water in the foreground (reproduced in Dennis Longwell, Steichen: The Master Prints, New York, 1978, p. 17).  ‘The romantic and mysterious quality of moonlight, the lyric aspect of nature made the strongest appeal to me’ Steichen wrote in his autobiography.  ‘Most of the paintings—watercolors—that I did in my early years were of moonlight subjects. . . the real magician was light itself—mysterious and ever-changing light with its accompanying shadows rich and full of mystery’ (A Life in Photography, unpaginated, Chapter 1).

The influences of not only individual painters but also whole artistic movements on this period of Steichen’s work have been variously discussed in the literature: Dennis Longwell, in his Steichen: The Master Prints, 1914-1985, The Symbolist Period (op. cit.) and Lucy Bowditch, in ‘Steichen and Maeterlinck: The Symbolist Connection’ (History of Photography, Volume 17, Number 4, Winter 1999), for instance, are among many who tie Steichen to the international Symbolist movement.  Christian Peterson, in ‘The Photograph Beautiful: 1895 – 1915’ (History of Photography, Volume 16, Number 3, Autumn 1992), states the case for the Arts & Crafts movement, with its attendant influences of Whistler, Arthur Wesley Dow, and Japonisme.  And a number of scholars refer to Steichen’s relationship with Scandinavian painters such as Fritz Thaulow, especially Melinda Boyd Parsons, in her article ‘”Moonlight on Darkening Ways”: Concepts of Nature and the Artist in Edward and Lilian Steichen’s Socialism’ (American Art, Volume 11, Number 1, Spring 1997).   That a host of authors have found sources for Steichen’s early work in this variety of international styles testifies to Steichen’s talents as a visual magpie, seizing and synthesizing from the cultural plethora around him, not only in his Pictorialist phase, but throughout his career.  And, as always with Steichen, the total, as in ‘The Pond—Moonlight,’ was equal to far more than the sum of the parts.

Steichen admitted that, following in the traditions of the day, he initially saw his woodland photographs as preliminary studies for moonlight paintings.  ‘I made realistic notes of the actual night colors on the spot,’ he wrote about one Milwaukee twilight photography session, ‘describing the colors I saw in terms of a mixture of pigments to be used in the painting’ (A Life in Photography, unpaginated, Chapter 1).  If a Steichen letter from 1903 is any indication, the photographer vividly recorded in his mind the colors of a setting, even if planning a photograph: ‘We had a moon night before last—the like of which I had never seen before—the whole landscape was still bathed in a warm twilight glow—the color was simply marvelous in its dark bright—and into this rose a large disc of brilliant golden orange in a warm purplish sky—Gold. . . ’ (quoted in Longwell, op. cit., p. 94).  The ability of oil on canvas to capture the colors of a night setting, as well as its shadowy forms, was for Steichen one of painting’s most valuable aspects.  Steichen was from an early date preoccupied with color in photography, and he was one of the first to jump on the bandwagon, in 1907, when the Lumière brothers devised the first practical photographic color process, the autochrome.   Indeed, as aficionados of Camera Work know, so committed was Steichen to capturing the subtle colorations of certain moonlit scenes that he resorted to personally hand-tinting every copy of two photogravure plates issued in Camera Work:  the ‘Road into the Valley—Moonrise’ in the Steichen Supplement of 1906, and ‘Pastoral—Moonlight’ in Camera Work Number 19, from 1907.  

It was the malleable gum-bichromate process, and his consummate mastery of it, that allowed Steichen to realize to the fullest his vision of the moonlit landscape.  He was conversant in the basics of gum-bichromate before he left for Paris in 1900--‘I had read an article by Robert Demachy, a famous French photographer, about a process that he used extensively and referred to as a gum-bichromate process,’ he wrote in his autobiography (A Life in Photography, unpaginated, Chapter 1)—and he had experimented with gum in his Milwaukee images.   His exposure to the European masters of the process, however, as well as the photographs he saw in the European salons, broadened his outlook and showed him the possibilities of what could be achieved in terms of multiple printing on a large scale.    

His best introduction to the expressive uses of gum-bichromate would have been Robert Demachy (1859 – 1936), the French gentleman photographer who was married to a relative of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and was a fluent English speaker and writer.  Demachy practiced the gum-bichromate process almost exclusively from the 1890s until 1906, when he took up the Rawlins oil process.  His writings on gum-bichromate, in both French and English, were authoritative, and he befriended Steichen during the young photographer’s first sojourn in Paris.  The photographer who brought both scale and multiple colors to the process was Heinrich Kühn (1866 – 1944) (see Lots 38 – 40), the leader of the Viennese secession and like Demachy, a contributor to Camera Work.   Steichen met him in Munich in 1901, and could not have failed to have been impressed with the vivid colors achieved by Kühn through multiple, layered printings from different negatives. The works of these and other European practitioners of gum-bichromate, alone or combined with other processes, were seen and studied by Steichen at the salons on the Continent and in London.

In France, Steichen began working in gum-bichromate and combination processes with a vengeance.  Always ready to take up a challenge, he rose to the process’s technical demands and used its painterly qualities to prove that certain types of photographs could be worked over and multiply-printed until they were indistinguishable from etchings or other traditional fine prints.  His duping of the jury of the 1902 Champs de Mars salon is told over and over again in the Steichen narrative: how he submitted, and had accepted, ten gum-bichromate prints to the graphic arts category, only to have them rejected once the committee discovered they were photographs.  This early grand-standing aside, he worked very seriously, and with great power, in the combination processes, producing a series of Pictorial masterworks, of which the present image is one.

The print offered here is a multiple gum-bichromate print over platinum, and its depth and color come from skillful layers of manipulated, sequential printing, in different tones, from one negative.  The initial ‘base’ of the image would have been a platinum print, over which was printed one or more ‘layers’ of gum-bichromate.  Each of these subsequent layers could not only be a different tone, but could also be altered on its surface with a brush or sponge during development, allowing for manual control of the shapes and shadows.  In large format especially, the technique was elaborate, tricky, and laborious.  Although Steichen rarely discussed his printing in detail, there is an extant, undated letter he sent to Stieglitz regarding his large, multiple-process prints, which reads in part:

‘. . . [the prints] represent two months hard work to say nothing of the expense which my bills testify to.  Big plates mean more failures and cost like h__l.  I wish you could see the new things—They will be hard to hang—One in particular . . . ‘The Big Cloud’ . . . it’s a whopper—and will compel attention—although I’m afraid they may refuse to hang it— d__m if they do.  Another one Moonrise in three printings: first printing, grey black plat[itnum]—2nd, plain blue print (secret), 3rd, greenish gum.  It is so very dark I must take the glass off because it acts too much like a mirror.  I hope they will handle it carefully . . .’ (quoted in Longwell, op. cit., p. 17). 

As these large multiple-process prints were each created by a process not dissimilar from the creation of fine cuisine, with special touches known only to the chef, it is difficult to single out the ingredients of Steichen’s prints: thus it is hard to know if the description above applies perfectly to one of the three extant ‘Pond’ images, or to another print of the image now lost.   The print offered here has been analyzed recently by the conservation department at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and it is described by them as a multiple gum-bichromate print over platinum.  The print given to the Metropolitan by Stieglitz, also analyzed recently by their conservation department, appears to be a platinum print with applied Prussian blue and calcium-based white pigment, likely hand-applied.  The third print, in the collection of The Museum of Modern Art, is catalogued as a platinum and ferro-prussiate print.  Each is different, and each is striking in its own way.  As the photographer Joan Harrison, herself an accomplished printer in alternative photographic processes, has succinctly stated, ‘Gum-Bichromate is the most individual of all photographic printing processes both in method and result.  The hand of the artist is evident in every print and the medium is unique in that its malleability allows for the development of a personal colour palette suited to nearly any taste or sensibility’ (‘Colour in the Gum-Bichromate Process,’ in History of Photography, Volume 17, Number 4, Winter 1993, p. 375). 

Steichen’s large-format multiple process prints presented him with what must have been the most complex and challenging darkroom experiences he had known in his career to that point, and probably thereafter.  But these multiple-process prints were difficult, costly, and time-consuming, and these limitations precluded their production in any quantity.  That, coupled with the deterioration or loss of most of the photographer’s early Pictorial negatives during the first World War, make original Steichen multiple-process prints among the rarest works in his entire oeuvre.  

The print of ‘The Pond—Moonlight’ offered here was purchased from Alfred Stieglitz, presumably acting as Steichen’s agent, by John Aspinwall, in 1906.  Aspinwall, a friend and supporter of Stieglitz and an amateur photographer himself, served as president of the Camera Club of New York in the early years of the last century.  The date on Aspinwall’s bill of sale, 3 April 1906, may indicate that the print he purchased was the actual print of the image included in a major retrospective of Steichen’s work at the Photo-Secession Galleries from the 9th to the 24th of March 1906.    The original bill of sale to Aspinwall, in Stieglitz’s hand, which at one time accompanied the print, is now lost.  The print was also at one time accompanied by a copy of a letter from Steichen to Mrs. John Aspinwall Wagner, a descendant of the original owner, stating that the relatively high price of $75.00, paid in 1906, indicated that Steichen and Stieglitz thought the print was an especially fine one.