Messenger - Vol. 3, No. 1, Page 4
Fall 1993
The Gertrude Kasebier Collection

     Gertrude Kasebier, a pictorial photographer whose reputation
flourished nearly 100 years ago and was rejuvenated recently by exhibitions
in New York and Philadelphia, thought of photography as an artistic
expression equivalent to painting and printmaking.
     Her photographs, characterized by soft focus, backlighting and
printing on textured paper, are primarily allegorical studies of mothers
and daughters but also include portraits of affluent clients, fellow
artists and even American Indians from Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show.
     With more than 175 works, the University Gallery at Old College on the
Newark campus holds the largest collection of Kasebier's photographs owned
by any institution in the world. "Kasebier's works are very much in demand
now for loan to outside exhibitions," says Janet Lopez, assistant curator
of the gallery.
     In addition to the 1992 exhibit organized by the Museum of Modern Art
in New York and last spring's exhibition at the Alfred Stieglitz Gallery of
the Philadelphia Museum of Art, her photographs were loaned by the
University to the Free Library of Philadelphia and to the Philadelphia
Museum of Art's 1990 Legacies of Light exhibition.
     In 1989, the University Gallery also held an exhibition of 50 of her
works, organized with the help of undergraduate museum studies apprentices
and entitled Gertrude Kasebier: The Veiled Aperture.
     The 1993 Philadelphia exhibition, Gertrude Kasebier, Photographer,
included three photographs borrowed from the University's collection: Yoked
and Muzzled: Marriage, showing two recumbent oxen, yoked together in the
foreground, and a boy and girl in the background; Thanksgiving: Oceanside,
a Kasebier family gathering at the table with children sitting at a smaller
table in the foreground; and an untitled photograph from a series of
landscapes and seascapes of Newfoundland.
     The exhibition was accompanied by a monograph by Barbara L. Michaels,
a photography scholar from New York, who conducted some of her research on
Kasebier at the University of Delaware, reproducing several works from the
University Gallery collection in her publication.
     "Kasebier is one of the leading pictorial photographers of her
generation and certainly among the most prominent," says William I. Homer,
H. Rodney Sharp Professor of Art History, who is largely responsible for
the University's comprehensive collection of her works. In 1979, Homer and
a group of his art history graduate students arranged a pioneering
exhibition of Kasebier's photographs at the Delaware Art Museum in
Wilmington-the first major exhibition of her work. An accompanying catalog
for the show, A Pictorial Heritage: The Photographs of Gertrude Kasebier,
was written by Homer, and the exhibition later traveled to the Brooklyn
     Homer's research led him to strike up a friendship with Mason Turner
Jr. of Wilmington, the great-grandson of Gertrude Kasebier, who had
inherited a sizeable number of her works. Through this friendship, the
University Gallery received the weightier part of its collection. Taking
advantage of the tax benefits of donating works of art to an educational
institution, Turner gave his first group of Kasebiers to the University in
1977. He repeated such gifts for more than 10 years, and over time, the
collection grew substantially.
     "The Kasebier collection is an invaluable resource to the University,"
Lopez says. "She was not only one of the earliest pictorial photographers
but also was an extremely experimental one. Her manipulation of glass
negatives is fascinating for photography students interested in antique
processes. And our art conservation fellows have learned to conserve fine
works in photography from handling our Kasebier photographs."
     An expert on pictorial photography, which flourished from about 1898
to 1910, Homer has published widely on the period, authoring several books,
including Alfred Stieglitz and the American Avant-Garde, Robert Henri and
His Circle and Alfred Stieglitz and the Photo-Secession, which included
discussion of Kasebier's connection to Stieglitz. Stieglitz' famous wife,
Georgia O'Keeffe, has been widely lauded as a role model for female
artists, but Stieglitz' connection to and support for Gertrude Kasebier is
equally significant. Kasebier represented to an earlier generation the
model of female independence that O'Keeffe would later embody. Stieglitz
took an interest in Kasebier and promoted her in his Fifth Avenue gallery,
as well as dedicating to her almost the entire first issue of his journal,
Camera Work.
     Kasebier did a series of photographic studies of the New York painters
known as The Eight, sometimes called the Ashcan School, who unfashionably
chose to paint the underbelly of New York City. Helen Farr Sloan, the widow
of John Sloan, one of the artists, donated Kasebier's studies of her
husband to the University Gallery. In addition, Morris Library Special
Collections has a collection of Kasebier biographical memorabilia and
family photographs.
     Born in Iowa in 1852, Kasebier lived in the Colorado territory for
four years before moving East with her mother and family after her father's
death. In 1874, she married Eduard Kasebier, a shellac importer from
Germany who was a tenant in her mother's boarding house. They had three
children, and she began taking amateur photographs of her family.
Convincing her husband to move from New Jersey to Brooklyn, Kasebier, now
in her late 30s, studied portraiture at the Pratt Institute and, while
chaperoning a group of art students to France, made her first indoor
portrait photograph. After an apprenticeship with a German chemist to
master the technical side of photography and with a New York photographer
to learn the business side, she opened her own successful portrait studio
in New York in 1897. Two years later, she opened a studio at Newport, R.I.
     Kasebier's work earned her both commercial and professional success.
She met and worked with many famous photographers of the time, including
Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, Clarence H. White and Alvin Langdon Coburn.
Among her more famous subjects were the artist Auguste Rodin and Rose
O'Neill, the inventor of the Kewpie doll. But "whether of Indians or
society belles, children or fellow artists, her portraits are all
stunningly organized and emotionally complex," according to critic Kay
Larson in an April l992 article in Mirabella.
     Kasebier was an early member of the Council of Photo-Secession, whose
"goal was to elevate photography from documentation to artistry, with the
photograph having aesthetic merit in its own right," says Homer. Kasebier
is known for her ability to convey the personalities and character of her
subjects in her photographs and for her innovative practices in working
with negatives and prints. She often manipulated the backgrounds of her
portraits with brushwork and achieved almost "opalescent" effects through
her experiments with a wide variety of printing techniques, including
platinum, gum bichromate and silver. However, she opposed retouching of
photographs because that practice destroyed the evidence of human character
in the photograph, making people "look like peeled onions."
     It was no secret that she did not enjoy the happiest marriage to
Eduard Kasebier. They were well off, and her husband felt her desire to
work as a portrait photographer was a disgrace to the family. Gertrude
Kasebier clearly was an enormously talented and independent-minded woman,
though her photographs emphatically celebrate motherhood. Among her more
famous studies of mothers and children are The Manger, which features a
symbolic "madonna" dressed in white, seated in a stable and holding a
swaddled infant; Blessed Art Thou Among Women, featuring a loving mother in
white whose child, wearing a dark dress, stands apart from her, looking
into the future; and Lolly Pops, an informal scene where two young girls
(Kasebier's granddaughters) sit on a sunlit stairway as their mother
watches. Some others seem more pessimistic about marriage and motherhood,
like the Yoked and Muzzled: Marriage photograph, which dates from about
1915. Two quotes from Gertrude Kasebier best sum up this complexity, in
which she balanced career and motherhood as many modern women do today: "I
married my husband because of his legs-and I got legs" and "A woman never
reaches her fullest development until she's a mother."
                                        -Michael W. Hail, Delaware '94 Ph.D.