Trees, Long Island, 1904, printed 1905
Edward Steichen, American, born Luxembourg, 1879–1973
Image: 13 3/8 × 13 9/16 in. (34 × 34.4 cm) Sheet: 17 3/8 × 14 1/16 in. (44.1 × 35.7 cm) Mount: 17 3/4 × 14 5/8 in. (45.1 × 37.1 cm)
Museum purchase funded by the Long Endowment for American Art and the Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation
Habits of Mind
- OVERCOME FEAR Overcome fear of ambiguity / fear of failure or being wrong / fear of the unknown
- DEVELOP GRIT Develop endurance / grit / desire to rework ideas / open to a range of ideas and solutions/ possess self-discipline and self-confidence
Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.
• Explore choices artists make in art materials and techniques.
• Experiment with different drawing media.
• Create an expressive mixed-media drawing of trees.
Connecting to the Work of Art
This unique photograph is one of several Steichen made at this site, and it remained in the landowner’s family until it was acquired by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston in 1986.
In this composition the luminous central chestnut tree is framed by dense black trees at either side. Steichen emphasizes the towering size of the trees through the contrast with the fence in the foreground. The blooms on the central tree appear like short brushstrokes and recall that Steichen was interested in making photographs look like paintings. The vague details and hazy atmosphere create a romantic or spiritual mood.
To make their images look more like paintings or drawings, photographers at the turn of the century would coat their own photographic paper rather than use commercially made papers. Usually the light-sensitive metal they used was silver on platinum, but here Steichen used the carbon print process to allow multiple manipulations.
In this process, paper is coated with carbon black pigment suspended in gelatin and then sensitized. The sensitized paper is then exposed to light, which acts as a catalyst, through a negative. Gelatin exposed to light hardens; areas protected from light by the dark areas of the negative remain soft and dissolve when soaked under water. The thickness of black is carefully achieved by repeating the above process. Steichen wanted to create broad areas of rich dark black and delicate spots of white, instead of the fine details in most photographs.
To have photography accepted as an art form, photographers in the early twentieth century believed that their portraits, landscapes, and scenes of daily life should resemble paintings or drawings. They developed a style called Pictorialism, characterized by soft, glowing light, blurred forms, and a hazy quality.
Edward Steichen’s career spanned six decades. He worked as a photographer, painter, designer, cocurator of a gallery, and director of a major museum’s photography department. Steichen’s portraits of J. P. Morgan (1903) and Great Garbo (1928) are considered the definitive portraits of those individuals. In 1902 Steichen became a founding member of the Photo Secession, a movement to promote artistic qualities in photographs. He worked with Alfred Stieglitz on Camera Work, one of the first photography journals. In their galleries, Steichen and Stieglitz introduced modern European art to America, exhibiting the work of Paul Cézanne, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and others. Later, as director of the photography department at the Museum of Modern Art, Steichen created The Family of Man, a landmark exhibition that explored the commonalities that bind people and cultures, such as children, love, and death, as well as introduced the public to works of photography. It remains the most popular photography exhibition ever organized.
What do you notice about this artwork? Look closely at the shapes and the use of light. How does the artist use light and dark elements to delineate different areas in the scene?
Is this a painting or a photograph? How do you know?
Does the artist want us to recognize this scene? Why or why not? What do you think he wants us to focus on?
Notice the lack of a horizon line and the close cropping of the photograph. How does this differ from a more traditional landscape photograph?
What does the black and white color tone achieve? How would it be different if the artwork had colors? What colors would you expect to see?
What do you think is the most important element within the scene? Discuss how the artist creates a sense of monumentality by cropping his image. What does this tell you about his view on nature?
What season do you think this is? Why? Does it matter?
How is this work different from an everyday photograph? Discuss the compositional tools and how they create an image that is both formally compelling and interesting in content.
What feelings does this work evoke? Look at color, composition and scale.
How do you think the artist creates tone in this work, even though the image is black and white?
How would this work be different if the artist photographed the trees from afar? Do you think the artist wanted to challenge traditional landscape photographs?
This artist’s style is different from that of both professional photographers and amateurs. Do you think the artist was looking to show us reality or something different? What?
The artist demonstrates that photographs could rival paintings in their scale, individuality, and expressiveness. What do you think about the relationship between a photograph and a painting? Is a photograph always a true reflection of reality?
• Go outside and look carefully at trees around the school. Make drawings to record observations of the lines, colors, textures, and shapes of the trees.
• Experiment with different drawing media, including ink, pencil, and wash, to learn the properties of each. Create a mixed-media drawing that depicts trees and expresses personal feelings about trees.
(see Art Lesson: Exploring Trees- Mixed-Media Drawings, pg. 7)
• Display the drawings and compare and contrast the different choices made by students in the class.
Subject Matter Connection
One of the major reasons artists create art is to communicate an idea. Understanding how to break apart a work of art to see what is being communicated is a vital part of learning about art and how to be an artist. Students who learn how to truly communicate thoughts and concepts create meaningful works of art that have an impact on society.
Resources Available to Order
The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.
The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.