The Sculptor as Sculpture

With a camera and a smock, Zaida Ben-Yusuf made a case for the portrait as art.

In Paris, officials and artists inaugurated the autumn Salon at the Grand Palais, where the notable pictures included Manet’s Execution of the Emperor Maximilian. The National Gallery of Berlin bought Adolph Menzel’s Court Ball Supper from a private collector in Dresden for $40,000. In London, the Royal Academy replaced its winter showing of Old Masters with one of “modern pictures” to offer contemporary painters “that encouragement they so greatly need.” In New York, the Metropolitan Museum of Art dismissed curator of sculpture F. Edwin Elwell after he argued with George H. Story, curator of paintings, over the placement of a “certain piece of statuary.” And Mr. Rey of the gallery Seligmann & Company, 303 Fifth Avenue, returned from abroad on the ship La Savoie “after a very stormy trip.” Despite a reporter’s queries, he would not reveal the price that J. P. Morgan had paid him for a Houdon bust of Paul Jones.

Daniel Chester French strikes a pose for Zaida Ben-Yusuf, a British photographer who was known as something of a Bohemian.
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On October 21, 1905, for ten cents, The American Art News offered this and a whole lot more news about the people and institutions shaping the world of art. (In 1923 the name was shortened to The Art News; in 1941 it became Art News, and in 1969, ARTnews.) By then, the New York–based broadsheet was three years old, with bureaus in Chicago, London, and Paris, and stringers in Italy and Philadelphia. It had begun printing photographs in its oversize pages in 1904; this issue reproduced two portraits by Gilbert Stuart that had recently been bought by the Metropolitan Museum. Then, in October 1905, just as the paper went weekly, after its monthly summer schedule, The American Art News began featuring another kind of photograph: it initiated a series of portraits of prominent American artists. The October 21, 1905, subject was Daniel Chester French, a New Englander who was to become much more famous decades later for sculpting the Lincoln Memorial. The photographer was Zaida Ben-Yusuf, a British-born immigrant to New York who exhibited widely in the United States and Europe at the turn of the century, and has since been largely forgotten.

Ben-Yusuf was a successful professional portraitist influenced by the Pictorialists and admired by Stieglitz. Praised by some for her “artistic revolt” against conservative styles, she was criticized by others for her “eccentric poses,” according to Ambassadors of Progress: American Women Photographers in Paris, 1900–1901, an exhibition catalogue recently published by the University Press of New England. (The show, organized by Bronwyn Griffith, is on view through the 14th of this month at the Terra Museum of American Art in Chicago.) Photographer Frances B. Johnston, a great champion of Ben-Yusuf, described her work as “daring and original… vivid and striking in treatment… always characteristic, not only of her sitters’, but also of her own intense personality.” Ben-Yusuf’s portrait of French, likely shot in her studio at 578 Fifth Avenue, presents the artist in his smock, a strike for casualness at a time when artists generally posed in business attire. Adding to the note of artistry, Ben-Yusuf highlights the folds of the smock to make French look something like a sculpture himself.

The image signals a shift in the way The American Art News approached photography, presenting it not only as a means of illustration but also as a document—and art—in itself. Ben-Yusuf became a frequent contributor to the magazine, providing 17 portraits of artists in all. In 1912 she was said to have given up everything to go to the South Seas, but she later reappeared in New York, ultimately becoming the fashion editor for the Bulletin of the Retail Millinery Association of America.

Robin Cembalest is executive editor of ARTnews.

©2002 ARTnews L.L.C.

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