The subject of a new exhibition at the Palmer Museum of Art at Penn State University, the photographer Eva Watson-Schütze (1867–1935) was a leading member of the Photo-Secession, the early twentieth-century movement founded by Alfred Stieglitz that sought to elevate photography to the status of fine art. To this end, Watson-Schütze, Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, and others turned to a style called pictorialism—manipulating their pictures with soft focus, lens filters, lighting effects, and other means to achieve a painterly aspect in their prints that conveyed the personality and emotional intent of the photographer. Born Eva Lawrence Watson in Woodbridge, New Jersey, she originally set out to be a painter. At age fifteen, she enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and studied there for six years under Thomas Eakins and others. In the early 1890s, however, she developed an interest in photography, and by 1894 co-owned a portrait studio in Atlantic City. Her artistic training showed in her photographic work. Watson’s reputation for elegant composition and lighting, and the delicacy with which she handled her subjects, brought her into Stieglitz’s circle in 1898. In 1901—the same year she married Martin Schütze, a professor of German language and literature at the University of Chicago—her work was exhibited in a landmark show in Paris of photography by American women, securing her international stature.
Many of the Watson-Schütze photographs on display at the Palmer were taken at Byrdcliffe, the artists colony founded in 1902 near Woodstock, New York. Her work has been regarded as a photographic complement to the tonalist paintings of other Byrdcliffe residents such as L. Birge Harrison and Bolton Brown. While Watson-Schütze remains best known for her sensitive portraits of women and children, one of her most striking in the Palmer exhibition is that of the Irish poet and playwright William Butler Yeats. Taken about 1904, the photograph captures the thirty-nine-year-old Yeats, with his flowing cravat, graceful hands, and pince-nez, looking at once romantic and grave—a literary lion on the cusp of middle age.
Eva Watson-Schütze: Pictorialist Portraits • Palmer Museum of Art, Pennsylvania State University, State College • January 10 to April 30 • palmermuseum.psu.edu