Gertrude Käsebier (1852-1934): An Artistic Success Story

After my babies came I determined to learn to use the brush. I wanted to hold their lovely little faces in some way that should be also my expression, so I went to an art school; two or three of them, in fact. But art is long and childhood is fleeting, I soon discovered, and the children were losing their baby faces before I learned to paint portraits, so I chose a quicker medium.

 –Gertrude Käsebier quoted in “The Camera Has Opened a New Profession for Women–Some of Those Who Have Made Good,” New York Times, April 20, 1913, X12.

[Gertrude Käsebier, wearing feathered hat, standing, facing front, half-length portrait]

[Gertrude Käsebier, wearing feathered hat, standing, facing front, half-length portrait]. Photograph by Baron Adolf De Meyer, circa 1900.

Starting, as her words above suggest, from a maternal and aesthetic desire to find an art form in which to capture the beauty of her children, Gertrude Käsebier went on to achieve financial success and critical recognition in her time in the realms of fine arts photography as well as in commercial photojournalism. In considering the remarkable career of photographer Gertrude Käsebier, two proverbs come to mind: “We are all a product of our times” and “Necessity is the mother of invention.”

Following Käsebier’s art studies at the Pratt Institute, her husband fell ill so she turned to portrait photography in order to keep her family financially afloat. Not lacking in confidence, she sought out the preeminent photographer Alfred Stieglitz who, over time, became a champion of her work. Käsebier, like Stieglitz, is associated with the Pictorialist school, which sought to elevate the status of photography to a fine art.

Technological advances in the reproduction and publishing of photographic images gave rise to illustrated magazines in the 1890s and 1900s. Käsebier took on photo assignments for publications such as World’s Work and Everybody’s Magazine, which provided a wider audience for her work, thus increasing her notoriety and acclaim. By the turn of the twentieth century, Käsebier had achieved twin success at the top of both art photography and magazine photography.

American Indian man, probably a member of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, bust portrait, facing front, wrapped in blanket.

[The Red Man posed by Takes Enemy, Sioux Indian]. Photograph by Gertrude Käsebier, [circa 1900].

Photograph shows head-and-shoulders portrait of Native American man.

The red man. Photograph by Gertrude Käsebier, [1902].

Growing up in the Colorado Territory, Käsebier had Native American playmates. Later, in New York, between 1898 and 1899, she made numerous portraits when the cast from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show visited her studio. The most famous portrait from these sessions is “The Red Man.”  The Library of Congress holds the original negative (above left) which can be compared with the print (above right) that Kasebier modified artistically.

Gertrude Kasebier's daughter, Gertrude Kasebier O'Malley, full-length portrait, standing, facing front, holding her infant son Charles O'Malley.

[Mother and child posed by G. O'Malley .... at Oceanside, Long Island in 1900]. Photograph by
Gertrude Käsebier,[1900].

Photography curator Beverly Brannan sums up Käsebier’s artistic career ”as an American success story, rising from frontier origins to fine art, from precarious means to financial stability. She rose to the top and maintained her position in a fiercely competitive field, artistically and financially . . . “  Other women whose professional photographic careers stemmed from their desire to capture their children’s fleeting childhood include Sally Mann and Melissa Pinney.

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