That’s What We Call a Sale Here: Alfred Stieglitz, Non-Commercialism, and the Rise of American Modernism
by Alie Cline
Although first enthralled by European modernism, Alfred Stieglitz worked tirelessly to promote American artists over their more popular European counterparts. After the First World War, Stieglitz turned his attention to a new group of specifically American artists, championing unknown figures that would become his core group of American modernists. Through Stieglitz’s ideology about art (which correlated directly with the physical space of his galleries), and by promoting the individual careers of essentially unknown American artists, Stieglitz helped create a brand of American modernism based not on the idea of art as a commercialized product but as something that reflected traditional American values.
Alfred Stieglitz
American Art
“I was born in Hoboken. I am an American." These words written by Alfred Stieglitz for a 1921 issue of Camera Work serve as an important introduction to his ideology about art (fig. 1).
Frank Eugene, Portrait of Alfred Stieglitz (c. 1901), National Gallery of Art, D.C., photogravure.Photo: NGA Images.
Over the latter half of his life, Stieglitz worked tirelessly to promote American art and artists over their more popular European counterparts. First enthralled by European modernism, Stieglitz initially helped develop the careers of now-preeminent artists such as Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso before their work had broken into the American market through his 291 gallery in New York City. However, Stieglitz turned his attention to a new group of specifically American artists after the first World War, shifting his attention from European modernists to championing previously unknown figures that would become his core group of artists: Arthur Dove, John Marin, Georgia O’Keeffe, Marsden Hartley, and Charles Demuth. Through Stieglitz’s ideology about art (which correlated directly with the physical space of his galleries, 291, The Intimate Gallery, and An American Place), it is possible to trace a shift in Stieglitz’s attention from European modernists to specifically American artists. By promoting the individual careers of what were essentially unknown American artists, Stieglitz helped create a brand of American modernism based not on the idea of art as a commercialized product but as something that reflected the American values of spiritualism and democracy.
Stieglitz was part of a history of interest in the transformative power of the American landscape; his Equivalent series of photographs sought to re-create the transcendental feeling that Stieglitz experienced when looking at landscapes, mostly clouds and scenes around his house on Lake George in upstate New York. Stieglitz’s interest in the American landscape falls directly within the rich American artistic tradition that focused on the juxtaposition of the sublimity of nature with spirituality. The Hudson River School artists developed this theme with works that illustrated the American landscape in a way that not only showed the raw power of nature, but also connected that power with a more spiritual side. Often regarded as the artist that popularized this style of painting, Thomas Cole created recognizable scenes of American landscapes; by honoring the American wilderness in a way that suggested it as an untouched Eden, Cole infused his landscapes with virtue, presenting them as a way to right the wrongs of a corrupt society. Similarly, Albert Bierstadt continued this tradition with his sweeping views of the American west. Bierstadt’s paintings often incorporated manifest destiny into the national identity, bringing the idea of the West into the American consciousness and imagination. By painting scenes that combined the sublime grandeur of the American landscape with the notion of spiritual paradise, Bierstadt gave rise to the idea of the West as a redemptive place where Americans could inhabit their mythic destiny. Although he never stated his connection with these artists definitively, Stieglitz’s own photographic work explored similar ideas of the combination of landscape and spirituality, a trend that he would encourage and cultivate through the work of the American artists he chose to exhibit in his galleries.
Although his galleries were different in the scope of their specific focus, the overarching motivation of Stieglitz’s spaces was the promotion of art as a non-commodity. Just as the landscape paintings of Cole and Bierstadt presented the West as a spiritual antidote to the modernization of the East Coast, Stieglitz saw his galleries as the antidote to the commercialized world of the New York art scene in the nineteen twenties, thirties, and forties.1 Stieglitz likened the art business to a “house of prostitution … where money ruled.”2 To counteract what he saw as a fundamental flaw in the art business, Stieglitz insisted on using terms that reflected his ideology when interacting with gallery visitors and potential customers. When one visitor asked Stieglitz how a man of modest means could afford to buy a Marin work, Stieglitz reprimanded him, explaining that he should instead say what he could afford to “give up” for the painting, rather than “paying” for it.3 In another instance, Stieglitz essentially gave away another Marin work to a girl who could not afford to pay more than five dollars; the girl, overjoyed at being able to own a piece of art that she truly loved, told Stieglitz “I’ve never made a fool of myself before when I bought anything.” Stieglitz replied, “You’re not buying anything. That is what’s called a sale here.”4 In these and other countless examples, Stieglitz overwhelmingly rejected his galleries as commercial spaces. Stieglitz’s insistence that art should remain outside the realm of capitalism is perhaps the most important part of his ideology about art that he then actualized and presented to the American public through the physical space of his galleries.
Over the course of his career, Stieglitz organized three main galleries where he curated work: 291, The Intimate Gallery, and An American Place. Early on in his curatorial career, Stieglitz gained attention by promoting avant-garde European artists such as Henri Matisse and Paul Cézanne to the New York art scene before the storied Armory Show in February 1913. Stieglitz first earned notoriety through his curatorial work in 291, successfully predicting the explosion of European art that captivated dealers and buyers. After World War I and the closure of 291, Stieglitz turned his attention towards championing American artists, feeling unchallenged by the now widespread interest of previously new and exciting artists like Matisse and Picasso. In 1925, Stieglitz organized one of the largest exhibitions of American art for the Anderson Galleries, Alfred Stieglitz Presents Seven Americans, including work by John Marin, Arthur Dove, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Charles Demuth, all of whom would come to make up the core members of his circle. Stieglitz, invigorated by the success of the show, decided to start a new exhibition space: the Intimate Gallery. By 1929, however, the space was to be torn down, and Stieglitz opened his final (and largest) gallery, calling it An American Place, and focusing solely on developing the careers of the artists in his circle, specifically O’Keeffe, Marin, and Dove.
Stieglitz’s first gallery, and his most well known, was the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession, more commonly known by its street address on Fifth Avenue: 291. Operated from 1905 to 1917, Stieglitz focused on promoting photography as a fine art, exhibiting images from Edward Steichen, Gertrude Käsebier, and Stieglitz himself. However, Stieglitz decided to shift his focus to European modernism beginning in 1908; from that point on, he would devote nearly the majority of 291’s exhibitions to European artists such as Auguste Rodin, Henri Matisse, Constantin Brancusi, and, Pablo Picasso. The fact that Stieglitz’s expertise lay in photography and not modern art was not a deterrent; he was “an eager convert” to European Modernism, and surrounded himself with advisors such as the artist Max Weber, who shared his knowledge about the Paris art scene and guided Stieglitz towards the artists who would later become household names.5 Although Rodin was already extremely well known, Matisse, Brancusi, and Picasso broke into the American market largely through Stieglitz’s efforts. In curating 291, rather than focusing on American art as he would come to do later in his career, Stieglitz instead concerned himself with exposing Americans to new experiences and styles of art, such as the increasingly sought-after European modernist art, but also African masks and sculpture that had yet to break into the American market.6 In this way, Stieglitz singled himself out as a curator who was willing to bring new experiences to the American gallery viewer, a trend that would become important in his later work promoting specifically American artists.
At 291, by spatially and intellectually linking European modernism and a new American aesthetic that he was beginning to develop, Stieglitz subtly demonstrated to the public that a new American style of curation was equivalent in importance to the European counterpart. 291 was an “artistic experiment” of Stieglitz’s, and indeed, the layout of the gallery demonstrates a break with both the spatial and intellectual approaches to art galleries in the early twentieth century.7 The traditional presentation in Europe was to hang paintings in a “salon style,” where rows of paintings were grouped together on a wall according to genre, size, subject, and other similar traits. Stieglitz, however, hung works in 291 in one row with even spaces between them, with the occasional image above or below the main row of works. Stieglitz’s methods of exhibition were the “heir to European independent installations;”8 at small, private galleries in Europe, artists had begun hanging images at viewable height and with more wall space in between them. Stieglitz’s use of this new American method is important because it coincides with his anti-commercial approach to art: letting the viewer determine value and find their own personal response to art, rather than let the gallery owner dictate which pieces were the most important through placement and price.9 These ideas of a uniquely American spatial planning first explored at 291 would play an important role in Stieglitz’s later approach of presenting his circle of American modernists to a public who was mostly fixated on European-dominated art market, largely thanks to Stieglitz’s own work at 291.
Unlike 291, Stieglitz’s next exhibition space, The Intimate Gallery, focused almost exclusively on American art. After financial troubles forced him to close 291 in 1917, Stieglitz opened a space in a single room located in the already established Anderson Galleries; Stieglitz formally titled the space The Intimate Gallery (known affectionately to Stieglitz and his circle as The Room) and opened it to the public in 1925. In this space, Stieglitz refocused his attention on exhibiting and supporting contemporary American art that the Euro-centric New York art world largely ignored.10 After the Armory Show helped saturate the art market with European artists, Stieglitz was ready for a new challenge, upset that New York galleries were “cashing in” on the European modernists he had originally promoted during his years at 291.11 Like he did with his first gallery, Stieglitz altered the interior of the Intimate Gallery to more accurately reflect his aesthetic ideology about presenting art; his wife and muse, Georgia O’Keeffe, was in charge of taking down the traditional black velour coverings from the walls, replacing them with white cloth. Through the change in presentation, “the gallery space was symbolically cut off from the Victorian past: its early modernist white, the color of canvas and of photographic paper, announced the anti-academic present.”12 In addition, Stieglitz continued to hang works with more space around them, rather than grouped in the salon style, remarking, “Unless you have respect for a clean wall, you will not be able to see a picture. But the picture itself must stand the test of being seen against the cleanliness of the wall.”13 By replacing the black walls with white cloth and hanging images in a way that encouraged visitors to engage personally with individual pieces of art rather than be overwhelmed by the traditional salon-style of hanging, Stieglitz firmly announced a new brand of American art that visitors could spatially separate from the European works because of their method of display. In this way, Stieglitz emphasized what he perceived to be a break between the “commercial” European art and the more accessible, emotion-driven brand of American art he was aiming to promote.
By rejecting the commercialized mindset of the New York art scene and opening the Intimate Gallery, Stieglitz argued for a democratic approach to art, a place where visitors could engage with American art in a way that placed power in the hands of the viewer and artist, cutting out for-profit dealers entirely. Indeed, the Intimate Gallery was the launching point for Stieglitz’s push for reform in the American art market, a place where he could fully embrace his anti-commercialism attitude towards art in America. Stieglitz believed that American society had a “pressing need for an anti-theoretical art that addressed authentic, noncommercial experiences,”14 and he used the Intimate Gallery as a space to communicate that message. Unlike his New York dealer peers, Stieglitz wanted the Intimate Gallery to be “small-scale” and “quietly transforming.”15 Stieglitz was intently anti-profit, willing to let his galleries go bankrupt (as was the case with 291) rather than treat his job as a financial relationship between dealer and consumer. Stieglitz preferred to spend his time in the Intimate Gallery, rarely venturing outside its walls into other galleries in order to distance himself from the cutthroat dealer-consumer relationship that was the standard for the nineteen twenties and thirties.16 Like 291, the Intimate Gallery was a strictly non-profit enterprise. Stieglitz priced pieces in the gallery “according to buyer’s sincerity,” with all the profits going to the artists themselves, making Stieglitz a “hero of anti-commercialism in the public eye.”17 This rejection of art-for-profit characterized Stieglitz’s ideology and influenced his support of American artists that he exhibited in the Intimate Gallery.
Stieglitz’s final gallery, An American Place, was the culmination of aesthetic ideas towards the exhibition space. In 1929, the building housing the Intimate Gallery was to be torn down; Stieglitz immediately began searching for a new space and settled on the seventeenth floor of a building on Madison Avenue to house what would his last gallery, operating until his death in 1946. Christened “An American Place,” the new space reflected its namesake; Stieglitz held mostly monolithic exhibitions of strictly American artists, including his own work from time to time. As she had done for the Intimate Gallery, O’Keeffe again took charge of selecting the color scheme according to Stieglitz’s aesthetics, “supervising the painting of the walls and ceilings of the gallery’s two smaller rooms in pure white,” once again demonstrating Stieglitz’s complete break from European aesthetic values.18 Conceptually, Stieglitz had been advocating this break since 1921, when he “urg[ed] viewers to discard the vocabulary of European theory and criticism,” in an article for his journal Camera Talk.19
Also similar to the his previous galleries was the decidedly non-commercialized aspect of the An American Place, with Milliken, a contemporary of Stieglitz, pointing out the “infinite tranquility” of the gallery, stating that the “roar of New York is hushed.”20 An American Place, even more so than the Intimate Gallery, was emphatically not a commercialized space, with Stieglitz stating, “I am not in business. I am not a salesman. If people seek something, really need a thing, and there is something here that they actually seek and need, they will find it in time. The rest does not interest me.”21 When biographer and muse Dorothy Norman asked Stieglitz what kind of space he would ultimately like to open, Stieglitz responded, “My real delight would be to exhibit what I feel worth showing and then say to the public, ‘You cannot buy this at any price, under any circumstances.’ What I wish to demonstrate above all is that there are certain things that cannot be bought, cannot be touched.”22 In many ways, An American Place strived to create this ideal, with Stieglitz refusing to loan out images to museums or other galleries for exhibition23 and combining this anti-commercialism with the American aesthetic ideal first explored in 291 and the Intimate Gallery.
In addition to its continuation of Stieglitz’s anti-commercial ideology, An American Place evoked the sacred and spiritual aspect of the gallery space that Stieglitz had only touched on in his previous galleries. As Stieglitz’s longest-running gallery, An American Place served to enlighten viewers of Stieglitz’s spiritual value system where art embodied a greater whole than just the individual value of its parts. American landscapes demonstrated primarily through the paintings of Marin, O’Keeffe, and Dove adorned the walls of the space, and it is not a coincidence that Stieglitz favored landscape paintings of the American modernists over other subjects. By hanging modern American landscapes, Stieglitz engaged with the spiritual American landscape tradition exemplified by earlier artists like Cole and Bierstadt. In addition, Stieglitz’s personal work reflected this tradition as well; towards the end of his life, Stieglitz’s own artistic creations became more focused on quiet, contemplative landscapes instead of the hustle and bustle of his earlier pieces. If 291 was an artistic experiment and the Intimate Gallery the introduction of art as a non-commercial enterprise, An American Place fervently sought to evoke the spiritual realm of American art within the viewer, keeping within the tradition of American landscape painters like Cole and Bierstadt while simultaneously introducing the new generation of landscape modernists––O’Keeffe, Marin, and Dove––who would take up their mantle. Dorothy Norman described the reverent feeling that pervaded the gallery, writing “You begin to realize that if you will only listen hard enough, look hard enough, you will begin to know something that you cannot know about through asking,”24 even going so far as to directly call the gallery a “church.”25 Through An American Place, Stieglitz’s movement towards a uniquely American brand of modernism finally materialized through the physical aesthetics and conceptual underpinnings that were reflected in the gallery. For Stieglitz, to be American meant engaging in a spiritual dialogue, a dialogue that he finally achieved in the space of An American Place.
Stieglitz is important not only because of his role in the lives of artists like O’Keeffe, Marin, and Dove, but also because his efforts helped to create a unique brand of American modernism that had, to that point, never cohered into any sort of movement. Because of the widespread focus on European art, it would have been nearly impossible for fledgling American artists to navigate such a homogenous art scene. It is Stieglitz’s unfailing advocacy for a younger generation of American artists that allowed O’Keeffe, Dove, Marin, and others to flourish even during the dominance of European modernism in the American art scene. In addition, Stieglitz’s constant assimilation of his ideology into his gallery spaces “challeng[ed] the growing art audience and professional reviewers to receive [American] art in a new, informed way.”26 As Dorothy Norman explains, “Stieglitz’s words become living experiences. They preoccupy you. They beat within you.”27 Because Stieglitz allowed his galleries to function not only as places to hang images, but also as a safe harbor for creativity, a new ideology surrounding and promoting American modernism flourished.
Each of Stieglitz’s galleries reflect a different point in his shift towards championing American modernists over their more popular European counterparts. 291 was his first foray into exhibitions, the Intimate Gallery a stepping stone towards American art, and An American Place functioned as the culmination and integration of his ideas about art and spirituality. Stieglitz loved America and “defended it like a lover defending his beloved, and the America he envisioned was his own spirit at work in life.”28 This unfailing devotion to his country not only helped further the individual careers of those artists close to him, but also laid the foundation for a unique brand of American modernism that emerged from his circle, with Stieglitz at the helm focusing on spreading a gospel of anti-commercialism through his gallery spaces. Stieglitz stated to Dorothy Norman towards the end of his life, “I am here. Whether they come or do not come: I am here.”29 This quote effectively summarizes Stieglitz’s approach to promoting American art: because he believed so passionately in what he did, Stieglitz was able to disseminate his ideas to the American public through a combination of his ideology and gallery spaces, attracting viewers by encouraging their own personal reactions to art. Ultimately, Stieglitz carefully curated 291, the Intimate Gallery, and An American Place to further his artistic and ideological vision for American art. As Stieglitz himself so aptly put it, “At least it can be said of me, by way of an epitaph, that I cared.”30
1 Kristina Wilson, “The Intimate Gallery and the ‘Equivalents’: Spirituality in the 1920s Work of Stieglitz,” The Art Bulletin 85 (2003): 746-768.
2 Herbert J. Seligmann, Alfred Stieglitz Talking (New Haven: Yale University Library, 1966), 40.
3 Ibid., 44.
4 Ibid., 11.
5 Lisa Mintz Messinger, “‘The Pictures Collected Him’: The Alfred Stieglitz Collection in the Metropolitan Museum of Art” in Stieglitz and His Artists: Matisse to O'Keeffe, ed. Lisa Mintz Messinger (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011), 5.
6 Daniel Catton Rich, "The Stieglitz Collection," Bulletin of the Art Institute of Chicago 48 (1949): 64-72.
7 Wilson, “The Intimate Gallery,” 754.
8 Ibid., 753.
9 Ibid., 754.
10 Messinger, “‘The Pictures Collected Him,’” 8.
11 John Loughery, “The Example of Alfred Stieglitz,” The Hudson Review 54 (2001): 287.
12 Celeste Connor, Democratic Visions: Art and Theory of the Stieglitz Circle (Berkeley; Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2001), 72.
13 Dorothy Norman, Alfred Stieglitz: An American Seer (New York: Random House, 1960), 225.
14 Wilson, “The Intimate Gallery,” 757.
15 Loughery, “The Example of Alfred Stieglitz,” 289.
16 Robert Haines, The Inner Eye of Alfred Stieglitz (Washington, DC: University Press of America, Inc., 1982), 60.
17 Ibid., 80.
18 Connor, “Democratic Visions,” 61.
19 Ibid.
20 William M. Milliken, “Alfred Stieglitz, Photographer an Appreciation,” The Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art. 22 (1935): 32-34.
21 Norman, Dorothy. “An American Place,” in America and Alfred Stieglitz: A Collective Portrait, eds. Waldo Frank et al. (New York: Doubleday, Doran & Co, 1934), 127.
22 Norman, Alfred Stieglitz, 126.
23 Ibid., 226.
24 Norman, An American Place, 129.
25 Ibid., 131.
26 Connor, “Democratic Visions,” 61.
27 Norman, “An American Place,” 130.
28 Ibid., 140.
29 Ibid., 150.
30 Norman, “Alfred Stieglitz: An American Seer,” 229.
Connor, Celeste. Democratic Visions: Art and Theory of the Stieglitz Circle. Berkeley; Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2001.
Haines, Robert. The Inner Eye of Alfred Stieglitz. Washington, DC: University Press of America, Inc., 1982.
Hoffman, Michel E., and Martha Chahroudi. “Spirit of an American Place: An Exhibition of Photographs by Alfred Stieglitz.” Philadelphia Museum of Art Bulletin 76 (1980): 1-25.
Loughery, John. “The Example of Alfred Stieglitz.” The Hudson Review 54 (2001): 286-294.
Messinger, Lisa Mintz. “‘The Pictures Collected Him’: The Alfred Stieglitz Collection in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.” In Stieglitz and His Artists: Matisse to O'Keeffe, edited by Lisa Mintz Messinger, 3-14. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011.
Milliken, William M. Alfred Stieglitz, Photographer an Appreciation. The Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art 22 (1935): 32-34.
Norman, Dorothy. Alfred Stieglitz: An American Seer. New York: Random House, 1960.
Norman, Dorothy. “An American Place.” In America and Alfred Stieglitz: A Collective Portrait, edited by Waldo Frank, Lewis Mumford, Dorothy Norman, Paul Rosenfeld, and Harold Rugg. New York: Doubleday, Doran & Co, 1934.
Rich, Daniel Catton. "The Stieglitz Collection." Bulletin of the Art Institute of Chicago 48 (1949): 64-72.
Seligmann, Herbert J. Alfred Stieglitz Talking. New Haven: Yale University Library, 1966.
Wilson, Kristina. “The Intimate Gallery and the ‘Equivalents’: Spirituality in the 1920s Work of Stieglitz.” The Art Bulletin 85 (2003): 746-768.
Alie Cline
Art History, B.A. and English, B.A., University of Texas at Austin

Alie Cline is the Digital Content Strategist at the Blanton and holds BAs in Art History and English from the University of Texas at Austin. You can find her online as the voice behind all the Blanton’s social media profiles, or on Twitter at @aliecline.

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