Edward Steichen: In Exaltation of Flowers
February 23, 2021 — May 30, 2021
Frank Photography Gallery
Though he is best known today as one of the twentieth century’s leading photographers, Edward Steichen began his artistic career as a painter.
This exhibition features his most grand and ambitious effort in that medium: In Exaltation of Flowers. This large-scale mural, which measures ten feet high and nearly forty feet wide altogether, comes to the Chrysler on loan from Art Bridges. The mural’s seven panels are paired with works from the Chrysler’s rich photography and decorative arts holdings that illuminate Steichen’s photographic career. The works also highlight the broader impact of the figures depicted in the painting, including Isadora Duncan, Mercedes de Cordoba, and Charles Lang Freer. Also included are examples from the Chrysler’s holdings of Camera Work, an influential art and photography journal published by Alfred Stieglitz.
Designed for the New York home of his friends Agnes and Eugene Meyer, Steichen created In Exaltation of Flowers with tempera and gold leaf on canvas. The shimmering mural featured an elaborate group portrait of Steichen’s and the Meyers’ friends who formed a close-knit intellectual and artistic circle while living in France. Influenced by the writings of the symbolist writer Maurice Maeterlinck, the group nurtured a deep interest in the symbolic meanings embodied in flowers.
Many varieties of flora are depicted with great flourish throughout the mural, meant to emphasize aspects of the sitters’ character and personality traits. The group consisted of fellow artists, dancers, and collectors who left a wide-ranging creative legacy reflected in the objects and photographs displayed alongside the mural in the exhibition. Together, these works shed light on an under-appreciated aspect of the career of one of America’s greatest photographers while exploring the legacy of a vibrant creative social network and the deeper symbolic meanings hidden in nature.