The Manger Kasebier, Gertrude  (American, 1852-1934)

From its debut at the Philadelphia Salon exhibition in 1899, The Manger became one of Käsebier’s best known and highly regarded photographs.  Made in the summer of that year in the stable at Long Meadow, her Newport, Rhode-Island, cottage, The Manger is among the most accomplished of Käsebier’s many depictions of motherhood. The model for the photograph is Käsebier’s friend, the illustrator Frances Delehanty.  She is clothed in layers of diaphanous fabric that may have belonged to photographer F. Holland Day, a visitor to Long Meadow that summer, who had come equipped with a trunk of costume clothing.  In a lesser photographer’s hands this scene could well have become a conventionally sentimental cliché.  Yet Käsebier’s expert handling of the light, which streams softly into the scene from above, and her restrained approach to the subject matter – to say nothing of the masterful quality of the printing – set this image apart from much of the Pictorial photography of the time. 

The Manger was heralded at the 1899 Philadelphia Salon, and Alfred Stieglitz stated that it was ‘generally considered the gem’ of the exhibition (Barbara Michaels, Gertrude Kasebier: The Photographer and her Photographs, p. 61).  In the fall of that year, Käsebier sold a print of the image to the English actress, Ellen Terry, for one hundred dollars, an astonishing sum at a time when photography’s status as a fine art was far from assured.  Stieglitz himself thought highly enough of the picture to include it in Camera Notes, and again in the very first issue of Camera Work, where it is illustrated in photogravure as the second plate.  Two appreciations of Käsebier’s work also appear in this issue: one by fellow photographer, Frances Benjamin Johnson, and the other by critic Charles H. Caffin.  Caffin singled out The Manger for praise, lauding its depiction of ‘figures of touching refinement in rude surroundings, irradiated with a soft flood of light that fills the place with heaven and surrounds the figures with divinity’ (Camera Work Number 1, p. 16).   Stieglitz also included The Manger in his American Pictorial Photography, Series II, portfolio (New York: Publication Committee, Camera Club, 1901), along with Blessed Art Thou Among Women. The Manger was widely exhibited in the first decade of the 20th century.  Most notably, it was included in the selection of twenty-two Käsebier photographs shown at the landmark International Exhibition of Pictorial Photography at the Albright Art Gallery in Buffalo in 1910.  This exhibition, organized by Stieglitz, was regarded at the time as the definitive statement on the art of photography as it was currently practiced.  Once again, The Manger was singled out for special attention when the Albright purchased Käsebier’s print of the image after the exhibition closed. (Sotheby’s Catalog)

Reproduced / Exhibited

Galassi, Peter, American Photography, 1890-1965, from The Museum of Modern Art (The Museum of Modern Art, 1995, in conjunction with the exhibition), p. 84

Homer, William Innes,
A Pictorial Heritage: The Photographs of Gertrude Käsebier (University of Delaware and the Delaware Art Museum, 1979, in conjunction with the exhibition), pl. 19

Homer, William Innes, Alfred Stieglitz and the Photo-Secession (Manchester, New Hampshire: The Currier Gallery of Art, 1983, in conjunction with the exhibition), pl. 34

Homer, William Innes, and Johnson, Catherine, Stieglitz and the Photo-Secession 1902 (New York, 2002), unpaginated

Margolis, Marianne Fulton, Camera Work: A Pictorial Guide (New York, 1978), p. 1

Michaels, Barbara L., Gertrude Käsebier: The Photographer and Her Photographs (New York, 1992), p. 53

Peterson, Christian A., Alfred Stieglitz’s Camera Notes (Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 1993, in conjunction with the exhibition), pl. 52