Foursome: Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O'Keeffe, Paul Strand, Rebecca Salsbury

Foursome: Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O'Keeffe, Paul Strand, Rebecca Salsbury

by Carolyn Burke


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A captivating, spirited account of the intense relationship among four artists whose strong personalities and aesthetic ideals drew them together, pulled them apart, and profoundly influenced the very shape of twentieth-century art.

New York, 1921: acclaimed photographer Alfred Stieglitz celebrates the success of his latest exhibition—the centerpiece, a series of nude portraits of his soon-to-be wife, the young Georgia O'Keeffe. The exhibit acts as a turning point for the painter poised to make her entrance into the art scene. There she meets Rebecca Salsbury, the fiancé of Stieglitz’s protégé, Paul Strand, marking the start of a bond between the couples that will last more than a decade and reverberate throughout their lives. In the years that followed, O'Keeffe and Stieglitz become the preeminent couple in American modern art, spurring on each other's creativity.  Observing their relationship leads Salsbury to encourage new artistic possibilities for Strand and to rethink her own potential as an artist.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307957290
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/05/2019
Pages: 432
Sales rank: 411,840
Product dimensions: 6.60(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.60(d)

About the Author

CAROLYN BURKE is the author of No Regrets: The Life of Edith Piaf, Lee Miller: A Life (finalist for the NBCC), and Becoming Modern: The Life of Mina Loy. Born in Sydney, Australia, she now lives in Santa Cruz, California.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One 

Born in Hoboken


"I was born in Hoboken. I am an American,” Stieglitz declared in his Anderson Galleries catalog. In 1921, at a time of renewed patriotism, his German-Jewish origins made him seem doubly foreign. To those who questioned his right to speak for the country, he objected that he was as American as they were.


Hoboken, New Jersey, was then a middle-class town, which owed its prosperity to the steamship companies lining its docks. Edward Stieglitz had brought Hedwig Werner, his bride, to reside there in 1862, when so many of their compatriots lived in Hoboken that it was called “Little Germany.” Edward purchased a three-story house with a view of Man­hattan soon after Hedwig gave birth to Alfred, their first child, on Janu­ary 1, 1864.

Born Ephraim Stieglitz in Münden, Germany, Alfred’s father changed his name to Edward when he came to the United States after the 1848 revolution. Within a short time, he became a successful wool merchant and aspired to live like a gentleman. Hedwig never learned English well, but she passed on her love of the arts to her firstborn. Of their six chil­dren, Alfred remained his parents’ favorite, even though he believed that he had been displaced by his twin brothers, Julius and Leopold, born when he was three. “[He] would spend the rest of his life,” one biogra­pher writes, “searching for a twin of his own.”

Their house was full of guests, Stieglitz recalled, “musicians, artists, and literary folk, rather than business people. We had many books and pictures. Our dining room in Hoboken was in the basement. . . . I had my hobby horse there and while the men would drink, talk and smoke, I loved to sit on my horse, riding and listening to the conversation.” His parents’ hospitality made a strong impression: “They created an atmosphere in which a certain kind of freedom could exist. This may well account for my seeking a related sense of liberty as I grew up.”

The Stieglitzes moved to Manhattan in 1871, after the birth of their last child. Their brownstone on East Sixtieth Street had modern comforts like steam heat; the sparsely settled terrain near Central Park allowed Alfred the liberty he craved. Edward enrolled him at the nondenomi­national Charlier Institute for Young Gentlemen, where he was first in his class, despite his refusal to memorize the poems he was assigned in declamation, a talent in which he would always excel. The school emphasized a high-mindedness that was compatible with his father’s rejection of Jewish beliefs in favor of a principled atheism.

Alfred learned as much at home as he did at school. Edward taught him his own hobbies, including billiards, a love of horsemanship, and a knowledge of wines, but he became angry when Alfred failed to sat­isfy his demands for excellence. Edward stressed ethical probity rather than spiritual training. That the family was Jewish was not discussed. At a time when Reform Judaism appealed to many of their middle-class brethren, the Stieglitz children thought of themselves as “ex-Jews,” members of a small aristocratic tribe presided over by Edward.

Fortunately for her children, Hedwig was a woman of great warmth. She was also an avid reader, particularly of the German romantics—Schiller, Heine, Goethe, whose emphasis on the “living quality” of thought she shared with her son. As a boy, Alfred alternated between bouts of exercise and stints of reading everything from Uncle Tom’s Cabin to Goethe’s Faust. When Hedwig asked his opinion of Faust, he replied, “There are two things that attract me in it, Marguerite and the Devil.” (A biographer notes that “in the pure and virtuous Marguerite he saw his mother—and in the clever, cavalier, powerful, and wicked Mephis­topheles, his father.”) Alfred was aware of Edward’s nightly trips to visit the chambermaid. Rereading Faust in his teens, he was drawn to Helen of Troy, the Eternal Woman whose aura blended the stirrings of sexual feeling with the wish for unconditional love. He suffered so often from dark moods that family members called him “Little Hamlet.”

Alfred’s melancholy lifted every summer when the Stieglitzes repaired to Lake George, a step deemed necessary for his health and for his father’s avocation, oil painting. They stayed at fashionable watering spots until 1886, when Edward purchased Oaklawn, an imposing Queen Anne house on the ten-mile stretch known as Millionaires’ Row. This gabled mansion became the family compound, and, in time, the anti­dote to Stieglitz’s life in New York.

He observed years later that he had been uprooted by his father’s decision to take him out of the Charlier school to prepare for a career as an engineer—a profession in which he had no interest. Alfred was accepted by the City College of New York’s engineering program but felt uprooted there, although he did well. In 1881, Edward decided to sell his business and live for a time in Germany, where, he believed, teaching standards were more exacting.

Stieglitz often said that his engineering course at the Berlin Polytech­nic had meant little to him. At the time, while these classes did not stir his imagination, the discovery of a photography shop inspired him to learn the new medium. After buying a camera, developing trays, and a manual, he set up shop in his student quarters. Stieglitz believed that he had taken up photography as a free spirit; one might also see in his chosen medium one that avoided competition with his father.

The young man then began to take Hermann Vogel’s Polytechnic classes in photography, where he worked diligently for the next two years, experimenting with the chemistry and optics of the medium—the effects of light on the reactions that take place in the printing process. Alfred soon outstripped Vogel’s expectations, spending weeks printing his photographs of classical images, including a statue of Goethe with the muses of poetry, drama, and science beneath his feet.

Alfred’s Berlin years afforded him an education in living differently from his father. (Ironically, it was Edward’s business sense that produced in his son a fierce opposition to commercialism while providing his mod­est allowance.) Like his parents, he attended concerts, plays, and the opera, but he also frequented the racetrack and the Bauer Café, which was open day and night. It was the time in his life when he felt most free, with no social obligations and no one to interfere with his calling.

The young man was also free to dream about his feminine ideal. In a journal begun the day after his twentieth birthday, Alfred wrote that his idea of good fortune was to be loved, but that he despaired of finding someone who would do so. Like many twenty-year-olds, he was self-absorbed, moody, and keenly interested in the opposite sex. Although he claimed to have had his first sexual experience that year, it seems likely that his initiation did not take place until he was twenty-five, when he returned to Berlin from New York to show work in an 1889 exhibition timed to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of photog­raphy’s invention.

Judging by the photographs Alfred took that summer of a woman named Paula, he was in love with her, even though she was a prostitute. Sun Rays—Paula, Berlin shows his model in a large feathered hat and her hair in a chignon (signs of respectability) as she sits writing at a table (another sign of respect). The light streaming through the blinds casts patterned shadows on the wall; the photographs behind her include Alfred’s self-portrait, a head shot of Paula, and three valentines. This ode to domestic bliss, suggesting a Vermeer interior, symbolized his coming of age. (Stieglitz later said that he had fathered a child by another woman in Munich, to whom he sent an annual allowance.)

By then, Stieglitz was steeped in the geist of bohemian Berlin and the romanticism of German culture. Deeply impressed by Wagner, he believed in the idea of expressing the times through new forms of art. And while Goethe remained his favorite author, he was also reading Byron, Zola, Whitman, and Twain—reminders of his roots, like the American flag he placed above a portrait of his mother in an early pho­tograph entitled My Room.

Yet being American would not have blinded him to the nascent anti-Semitism of the time, when the Christian Socialists made prejudice a plank in their platform and extremists called Jews a national threat. Anti-American sentiments were also freely expressed. After one of his teachers told the class that the recently completed Brooklyn Bridge would soon collapse, Stieglitz stood up for this marvel of Yankee engi­neering: “It was, after all, my America I was defending.”

Table of Contents

Author's Note ix

Opening: New York, 1921 1

Lines and Lives

1 Born in Hoboken: 1864-1905 11

2 Portrait of 291: 1905-1913 27

3 The Direct Expression of Today: 1914-1917 41

4 A Woman on Paper: 1915-1916 52

5 Passion Under Control: 1916-1918 66

6 Squaring the Circle: 1918-1920 82

7 A Fine Companionship: 1920-1921 98

8 Twentieth-Century Seeing: 1922 112

9 Kinds of Living: 1923 125

10 Sensitive Plants: 1924 129

11 The Treeness of a Tree: 1925 152

12 Turning the Page: 1926 164

13 The End of Something: 1927-1928 174

14 How Closely We 4 Have Grown Together: 1929 190

15 New York in New Mexico: 1930-1931 208

16 Divided Selves: 1931-1932 225

17 Don't Look Ahead or Behind: 1933 239

18 Another Way of Living: 1934 251


Alfred 266

Rebecca 279

Paul 298

Georgia 315

Envoi 337

Acknowledgments 341

Endnotes 345

Selected Bibliography 389

Index 397

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