All ways are right: Stieglitz and the Seven Americans

by Lilly Dawson

Alfred Stieglitz was both a giant of 20th century photography and a relentless promoter of Modernism in America through three iterations of his New York galleries: 291 (1905-17), the Intimate Gallery (1925-29) and An American Place (1929-1946). Though there were others who advanced the same cause, it was this one man's determined and unique vision along with a passion for the importance of Modern Art that first gave it light in America. 


291 was a pioneering center for the Modernist movement. Stieglitz worked tirelessly to promote the European avant-garde and his gallery became the first one in America to feature these artists consistently, featuring Rodin and Matisse in 1908, Cezanne in 1910 and Picasso in 1911.


In 1917, as a result of the First World War and finances, Stieglitz was forced to close 291, but he continued to organise what today we might call “pop-ups” to expose his artists’s work, mostly held at the Anderson Galleries on Park Avenue. In 1925, Stieglitz secured Room 303 in the same building which became the Intimate Gallery, aka “The Room.” With this second iteration of his business, he focused on getting photography recognized as an art form and vigorously promoted a small core of American artists including Charles Demuth, Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, John Marin, Georgia O’Keeffe, Paul Strand and himself. Both Stieglitz’s photography and the work of these artists drew on the natural world, through their abstract sensibilities creating a marriage between the soul and nature.


In 1925, he organised a seminal exhibition with the unwieldy title: Alfred Stieglitz Presents Seven Americans: 159 Paintings, Photographs, and Things, Recent and Never Before Publicly Shown by Arthur G. Dove, Marsden Hartley, John Marin, Charles Demuth, Paul Strand, Georgia O'Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz. Nearly a century later, the curator Malcolm Daniel would write of the show: At the center is Stieglitz, a photographer of supreme accomplishment as well as America’s greatest champion of photography and modern art... through the seminal journals he edited and his succession of galleries, Stieglitz introduced the American public to the new century's most advanced examples of photography, Parisian avant-garde art, and American painting. In turn, he helped shape the course of Modern American art, both the public appetite for it and the critical response to it.” (1.)


Through tireless promotion, writings and exhibitions like “Seven Americans,” Stieglitz would not only make his group among the leading contemporary artists of their day, but also establish their lasting influence upon future generations. Stieglitz refocused Paul Strand's eye and both, in turn influenced Ansel Adams. In the late 1940s, Look magazine declared John Marin “Artist No. 1" and upon his death was hailed for his impact upon the evolution of modern art and his influence upon the next generation of Abstract Expressionists such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Demuth, Dove and O'Keeffe brilliantly translated the subjective experience of their surroundings in abstracted applications of color and form sharing a kinship with color field pictures by Mark Rothko and Helen Frankenthaler. 



Alfred Stieglitz (1864 - 1946)


Spurred by the start of his relationship with O’Keeffe in 1917, Stieglitz recommenced work on his own photography. He included in “Seven Americans” some of this new work titled Equivalents. It would soon be considered one of the most innovative and important contributions to the field of photography and its acceptance as an art form. 


In 1922, he turned his attention to the environs of Lake George in upstate New York, and particularly the sky and clouds there. With a small 4 x 5 inch handheld camera he captured evocative images of the clouds. The resulting photographs were spontaneous, emotional and without orientation, inscribed by Stieglitz on the verso “all ways are right,” meaning they could be hung on the wall in any orientation. Curator Carol Troyen described them thusly: “With no horizon and no marker to suggest scale, these images were both disorienting and liberating. They were revolutionary, and, despite their clear roots in the natural world, abstract.” (2.)



John Marin (1870 - 1953)


The master watercolorist John Marin responded to both urban and rural locales, capturing equally well the pulsating and frenetic atmosphere of Manhattan skyscrapers and the jagged coastline and turbulent seas of Maine. A Stieglitz favorite, he would hold annual exhibitions of Marin’s work between 1909 and 1950. His dynamic, playful and masterful manipulation of abstraction and realism in both watercolor and oil earned him a retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art in 1936. In some ways one could say Marin and Stieglitz were manipulating their two mediums to the same effect: with lens and watercolor; both captured the free flowing and boundless energy in the skies and seas.


This handling is evident in both early and later works by Marin, as seen in Sunset1914, painted the first year Marin visited Maine and likely one of the artist’s earliest depictions of its rugged coast, a landscape that seized his imagination and inspired images for the remainder of his career. A double-sided work, it is almost a diorama view of the coast (recto) in front and hills (verso) behind. As seen in his later work on paper, Blue, Grey Sea, Cape Split from 1939, the picture becomes much more abstract, dominated by jagged rocks, outlined in black and placed in angular juxtapositions. The immediacy imparted by the medium of watercolor and graphite is much more assured, rendering energetic ocean swells that emit a sublime sense of place and atmosphere. 



Charles Demuth (1883 - 1935)


A leading Precisionist painter, Charles Demuth was the other master watercolorist featured in “Seven Americans.” Like Marin, Demuth succeeded in promoting watercolor as a modern medium though with quite a different aesthetic approach. Cyclamen, 1918 was painted at the height of Demuth’s exploration of the medium, having discovered it during a trip to France, creating floral and figurative works heavily influenced by Cezanne. Demuth was drawn to the sensual and natural beauty found in nature, and returned to floral subjects throughout his career. 


Here he captures the essence, grace and fragility of the flower, bolstered by his modern practice of asking both color and its absence, the negative space of blank paper, to create solid compositional forms. Each blossom is highlighted by a concentrated center of red whose wash delicately fades to paper. Any sense of place is eradicated against the blank background, thereby maximizing the minimalist approach to the composition. This modern approach was dynamic and unparalleled.



Arthur Dove (1880 - 1946)


Having met as early as 1909, Stieglitz championed Arthur Dove’s work throughout his lifetime and secured major patronage for the artist from Duncan Phillips, founder of the Phillips Collection (Washington, D.C.). Stieglitz concentrated his support predominantly from 1921 on with inclusion in “Seven Americans,” a 1926 solo exhibition, and yearly exhibitions at An American Place. Dove was absolutely taken with Stieglitz’s Equivalents illustrating the ability of photography to be abstract and bought two for himself.  


Much like Stieglitz’s small images, Dove adopted a small but equally powerful scale in his own watercolors. As one of the first to promote non-figuration in his art, he created a body of watercolors evoking the abstract in nature, fluctuating between realistic and extreme organic abstractions. Both represented the ephemeral experiences of nature as seen in The Other Farm, 1934 an almost cubist rendition of an agricultural landscape with applied layers of colored forms, anticipating color field painting with its broad swaths of yellow landscape and brown and red buildings. Later works such as Landscape, 1941 were inspired by the new locale of his family farm in Geneva, New York causing a push towards even greater abstraction in his work with organic shapes, bold outlines and unexpected color schemes.



Joseph Stella (1877 - 1946)


Though not a member of the Stieglitz Circle, but rather friends with Alfred and  O’Keeffe, Italian born Joseph Stella was a pioneering modernist whose aesthetic paralleled those shown in “Seven Americans,” finding spirituality in the modern world. Stella’s early pictures were dynamic masterworks, lauded for their futurist-inspired aesthetic featuring the industrial and bustling landscape of New York, glorifying such locales as the Brooklyn Bridge and Coney Island. 


As much as the urban world fascinated him, Stella was also a bit of a nomad, living in both America and Italy for the next 24 years. In 1919, he looked more to the natural world of floral and fauna to express ideas of spirituality. The Italian landscape and memories of religious processions through its towns, coupled with visits to the New York Botanical Gardens and an admiration for 14th and 15th century Italian and Flemish painting, inspired new images. Stella painted the large-scale oil Tree of my Life in 1919 (Art Bridges), a triumph of nature melding modern European aesthetics with lyrical passages of color and light in a fantastical and symbolic natural environment. A grand and gnarled olive tree symbolizing the effect of life’s temptations is surrounded by a vibrating floral and fauna landscape, all enveloped by a bright blue sky. 


Stella executed exquisitely drawn studies in preparation for this painting and the present, Tropical Foliage Study, 1919 shows his deftness with foliage and color application, which appears strikingly similar to a multicolored tropical leaf found in Tree of my Life. Soon after, Stella painted a more stylized still life, Rose and Angel, c. 1920, including a deftly depicted rose alongside what could be a momento mori of Italy with the ceramic vase and angel. 



Arthur B. Carles (1882 - 1952)


Arthur Carles was a leading American modernist, living mainly in Philadelphia, teaching and promoting modernism with exhibitions of the avant-garde. Studying in Paris for three years from 1906, he was greatly influenced by the Fauves and the Post-Impressionists, and socialized with avant-garde society including the collectors Gertrude and Leo Stein. Though not formally a part of the Stieglitz Circle, he was friends with Stieglitz and, in 1912 he was given his first solo exhibition at 291. Of Carles’ work in this exhibition, critic Paul Haviland wrote: “Experimental as these canvases are, they reveal a born colorist and communicate the sense of joy which the artist must have felt in contriving his combinations of tones, a youthful, boisterous joy, possibly, but wholesome and full of strength and vitality.” (3.) In 1913 he exhibited at the revolutionary Armory Show.


Nudes and still lives, crafted in myriad styles from realism to abstraction, featured prominently in Carles’ oeuvre. His nudes, painted predominantly in the 1920s were influenced in color and technique by Matisse and Cezanne. His model and muse in many of these paintings was a red-headed French girl Angele, who was persuaded to model for Carles by his daughter, Mercedes. In Reclining Nude, c. 1920 the artist applies an energetic brushstroke to apply a nuanced palette with highlights of light and shadow, exhibiting a sensorial and abstract depiction of his subject. The painting was owned by Mercedes who herself became a dynamic abstract painter in her own right and founder in 1964 of the New York Studio School. 


The pioneering work of these seven influential artists, created in the early to mid 20th century, is often cited as a significant influence by artists and critics alike in the continued evolution of abstraction in the postwar period.





  1. M. Daniel, Stieglitz, Steichen, Strand - Masterworks from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2010, p. 9.


2.  C. Troyen, “Seven Americans: Equivalence in American Modernism,” in Seven Americans, exh. cat., New York: Bruce Silverstein Gallery, 2012, p. 3. 


3.  Paul B. Haviland, “Arthur B. Carles Exhibition,” Camera Work 37 (January 1912): 47.

January 16, 2024