George Frederic Watts by Edward Steichen


 George Frederic Watts by Edward Steichen, Photogravure on japan paper, 1900, NPG

 

Background description from National Portrait Gallery, "In 1900, Watts was aged 83 and the doyen of the art world, having outlived most of his contemporaries. He is shown here, in a photogravure from the American publication Camera Work, as a venerable figure whose profile features are illuminated by a single light source, perhaps a window. The pictorial style draws attention to the painterly composition and chiaroscuro derived from old master portraiture. In this respect, Steichen’s image – one of two poses from the same sitting – evokes an elderly version of Watts’s ‘Venetian Senator’ self-portrait of c.1853, although its immediate inspiration seems to be Watts’s profile self-portraits of 1879–80 (see ‘All known portraits’). It has also been argued that Steichen’s admiration for European Symbolist painting is reflected in the composition,  and doubtless such admiration drew Steichen towards Watts, whose late allegorical paintings proved major contributions to the Symbolist impulse. The exact circumstances of this portrait-making remain somewhat unclear, however.

American photographer Edward Steichen travelled to Europe in summer 1900 to study painting in Paris. In September he visited London to submit work to the season’s exhibitions, as he recalled later:

In the early autumn I went to London with the idea of submitting some of my photographs to the exhibitions of the Royal Photographic Society and the Linked Ring. There I met F. Holland Day [who] was in London to arrange for an exhibition of what he called The New School of American Photography and the Royal Photographic Society had turned over their exhibition rooms to him. Now for the first time, I saw photographs by outstanding photographers. It was an exciting experience … After the fuss and excitement of London I was ready to get back to Paris and go to work. But before leaving, I made a photograph of the venerable painter George Frederick [sic] Watts. This was the beginning of the portrait series I had planned to make of distinguished artists in Europe. I hoped to include painters, sculptors, literary men and musicians.

In this account Steichen does not explain why or how he was able to photograph Watts, or who furnished the introduction. No contemporary record of the encounter, which probably took place in Watts’s London home in Melbury Road, has yet been found. It is thought that Steichen was commissioned to make his portraits, but this may be a mistaken inference. However, further details of Steichen’s visit to London offer some context for the event. 

 Steichen did not print or exhibit his portraits of Watts while in Europe, but he did continue the ‘portrait series’ project inspired by Watts. On returning to America in 1902 he described it to a Milwaukee newspaper, saying, ‘My “Great Men” series includes portraits of Rodin, Maeterlinck, George Frederic Watts, the eminent English artist, Zangwill, Lenbach the great German portrait artist … Mucha the painter and many others.’ 
From the date ‘MDCCCCIII’ inscribed on both his Watts images, it would appear that Steichen prepared them for exhibition and/or publication in 1903, using the elaborate printing techniques then being developed. At the end of 1902 he was among the founding members of the Photo-Secession group in New York, under which aegis examples of his work appeared in Alfred Stieglitz’s quarterly publication Camera Work (which Steichen designed) as well as being exhibited throughout the United States. In the first issue of Camera Work, Stieglitz announced its aesthetic policy:

 Photography being in the main a process in monochrome, it is on subtle gradations of tone and value that its artistic beauty so frequently depends. It is therefore highly necessary that reproductions of photographic work must be made with exceptional care, and discretion of the spirit of the original is to be retained, though no reproductions can do justice to the subtleties of some photographs. Such supervision will be given to the illustrations that will appear in each number of Camera Work. Only examples of such works as gives evidence of individuality and artistic worth, regardless of school, or contains some exceptional feature of technical merit, or such as exemplifies some treatment worthy of consideration, will find recognition in these page"
 

  Portrait of George Frederick Watts, 1903, by Edward Steichen.

 Gum bichromate print, Alfred Stieglitz Collection. 

Both of these prints of G.F. Watts can be found in the following:  
Edward Steichen (American, 1879-1973) Six Portraits of Important Male Figures, 1903-1913.
Five photogravures and one halftone reproduction, two mounted, two double mounted, and two triple mounted; George Frederick Watts with the sitter's name, photographer's name and date in Roman numerals in negative; in good to very good condition (with the exception of Bartholome, which has a nearly severed upper left corner), not framed.

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