Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Monday, May 18, 2015

Gertrude Käsebier: "Yoked and Muzzled"

Gertrude Stanton Käsebier (born 18 May 1852)

The American photographer and photojournalist Gertrude Stanton was born on 18 May 1852, thirty years to the day after famed Civil War photographer Matthew Brady. From Fort Des Moines, the place of her birth, she moved to the Colorado territory with her mother, Gertrude Muncy Shaw Stanton, in 1860--her father, John W. Stanton, had opened a saw mill in Eureka Gulch at the start of the 1859 Pike's Peak Gold Rush. His business had prospered, and he was elected the first mayor of Golden, the territorial capital.

Gertrude Käsebier, c. 1908 
But by 1864, the family had relocated to Brooklyn, New York--sources disagree on the reasons for the move, some claiming it was because of the Civil War, others that the move was because of John Stanton's death. Whatever the case, Gertrude Stanton seems to have lived with her grandmother in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

She attended Bethlehem Seminary for Women between the years 1866 (or 1868--again, sources vary) and 1870--this "seminary for women" had been founded in 1742 as the first boarding school for women in the North American colonies. (The Bethlehem Seminary for Women became the Moravian Seminary and College for Women in 1913; in 1954 it joined with the men's Moravian College and Theological Seminary to form the co-educational Moravian College, now, as of 2021, Moravian University.)

Stanton married Eduard Käsebier, a German immigrant, on 18 May 1874, her twenty-second birthday--it was not a happy union. Käsebier was a successful businessman, and the marriage gave Gertrude stability and three children, but she was later to say, "If my husband has gone to heaven, I want to go to hell. He was terrible . . . Nothing was ever good enough for him." Because divorcing was not only difficult but scandalous, the couple did not divorce, but they lived apart after 1880.

Despite her husband's "terribleness," Eduard Käsebier not only supported his family but supported Gertrude when she enrolled in the Pratt Institute in 1888 or 1889 (again, sources vary)--she was thirty-seven years old, the youngest of her three children then about age nine or ten. Although she had originally intended to become a painter, her attention turned to photography. 

In 1894, after finishing her course of study at the Pratt Institute, she traveled to Germany and France to further her artistic education, leaving her son with her husband. She took her two daughters with her--in Germany, she left them with her husband's family, in Wiesbaden; in Paris, she enrolled them in French schools. But by 1895 she had returned to Brooklyn--her husband was ill, the family's finances strained. She apprenticed at a photographic studio, and then opened a portrait studio on Fifth Avenue, in New York City, the next year. 

"Yoked and Muzzled--Marriage," c. 1915
Her business was a success--commercially, artistically, and creatively. Interestingly, given her own dissatisfactions with marriage (and motherhood), many of her most successful photographs presented highly idealized pictures of mothers and children. Certainly her personal views about marriage were reflected in at least one photograph, "Yoked and Muzzled--Marriage." 

Aside from her portraits of the rich, wealthy, and famous and her studies of mothers and children, Käsebier is also noted for her series of portraits of Native Americans, members of Buffalo Bill's Wild West troupe. She began her photographs in her studio but then continued the series on the plains. Her photos of Native American subjects are notable for not relying on costume or cliché, many of them now part of the Smithsonian Anthropology Archives.

Chief Flying Hawk, 1898
Over the course of her career, Käsebier exhibited and published widely--her photographs appeared in the progressive monthly World's Work: Magazine of the Arts and Public Affairs, in Everybody's Magazine, in Muncey's, in Scribner's, and in McClure's. She promoted professional organizations and encouraged women to enter the field of photography.

Eduard Käsebier died in 1910. Gertrude Käsebier continued to work, finally closing her studio at the end of the 1920s (sources gives dates ranging from 1926 to 1929); she died on 12 (or 13? sources vary) October 1934.

A good biographical essay is available at the International Photography Hall of Fame website and at the Library of Congress website. There is a wonderful gallery of images available through the Metropolitan Museum of Art website.

Käsebier's "Blessed art thou among women,"
c. 1899, was issued as a U.S. postage stamp in 2002 

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