What is it?
Edward Steichen (Luxembourg 1879–1973 New York)
Untitled (Lake Scene)
Oil on canvas
32 x 42 in.
Lent 2005, Anonymously
About the Work
The renowned photographer Edward Steichen initially was a painter. Lake Scene is one of his rare extant canvases. In 1923, Steichen decided to devote himself entirely to photography and, in order to purify himself of the past, made a bonfire of all the paintings he still possessed. “Painting meant putting everything I felt or knew into a picture that would be sold in a gold frame and end up as wallpaper,” Steichen reflected in later years. “I wanted to reach into the world, to participate and communicate, and I felt I would be able to do this best through photography.” (Steichen, A Life in Photography, 1963)
At the time the twenty-one-year-old aspiring artist painted Lake Scene, he was employed by the American Fine Art Company of Milwaukee as a designer of advertisements. In April 1900, shortly after completing the painting, Steichen committed himself to his own work, resigned his position at the American Fine Art Company, and set sail for Paris to study art.
The influence of painting on Steichen’s photographic work, however, endured. This moody evening vista shares traits with his early photographic triumphs. The largely monochrome, tonal palette along with the calm, balanced landscape establishes a meditative stillness. The brushwork and muted light have the same hazy soft-focus quality of The Pond—Moonlight (1904), a print of which sold for $2.9 million in 2006. By applying light-sensitive gums with a paintbrush, Steichen was able to add subtle color and tonal gradations by hand-tinting each photograph.
At the time of his death in 1973, Steichen was among the most illustrious figures in twentieth-century American art. In addition to being an artist, he served as the Director of the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art from 1946 through 1962, curating landmark exhibitions of historical and contemporary work.