Trees, Long Island
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)
Habits of Mind
- COMMUNICATE Verbalize ideas, thoughts, feelings / ask provocative questions / ask for support
SUBJECT AREALanguage Arts
Writing Short Stories
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.
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.
• Study the three works of art and generate descriptive phrases for the trees, lines, textures, shapes, colors, light, and mood.
• Read and discuss van Gogh’s description of his feelings about the landscape in The Rocks.
• Have students imagine they are in each work of art. Describe the sounds, smells, light, temperature, and season. What animals or people would they meet? How would they feel? How does each artist use light, color, texture, and contrast to create mood?
• Have students select one of the focus works and write first drafts of short stories set in that landscape. They should develop characters and write dialogue. Encourage students to use descriptive words and phrases to capture the mood and atmosphere of the art.
• Review the drafts, and have students write a final version of their stories.
• Publish stories using the computer. Display the stories with the works of art (suggested title: Treemendous Tales).
Resources Available to Order
The Learning Through Art program at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, is underwritten by:
The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.