Image Credits: Edward J. Steichen (1879–1973), In Exaltation of Flowers, 1910–1914. Courtesy of Art Bridges.

About the Artwork

These seven canvases by Edward Steichen (1879-1973) were created between 1910 and 1914 as a mural series to decorate the foyer of a townhouse on Park Avenue in New York City. The owners, Mr. and Mrs. Eugene Meyer, Jr., commissioned the work to be more than decorative but also biographical. The panels feature the Meyers’ family and their close associates. Steichen himself was a member of this collective, and thus had an intimate understanding of the temperaments and interests of the group.

In each panel, Steichen placed alongside each sitter botanical specimens that aligned with their dominant personality traits. Steichen drew particular inspiration for these floral personifications from the book The Intelligence of Flowers (1907) by Symbolist poet and playwright Maurice Maeterlinck.

This was an extension of the practice among the group of using floral names to address one another in correspondence and in humorous and creative ways. The layered meanings embedded in the mural were not readily apparent to those outside the Meyers’ social circle.

The Patrons

Agnes Elizabeth Ernst (1887–1970) and Eugene Meyer, Jr. (1875–1959) married in 1910. Agnes grew up in a middle-class family of first-generation German Lutheran immigrants in New York City. She attended Barnard College against her parents’ wishes and supported herself by tutoring and working as a reporter for the New York Sun. She frequented New York galleries and became acquainted with avant-garde artistic circles. At one such gallery, she met Meyer, who came from a California family and graduated from Yale University in 1895, after which he worked in banking and for the New York Stock Exchange. Moving to Washington, D.C., in 1917, he held several governmental positions before being named as chairman of the Federal Reserve Board (1930–33). He purchased the Washington Post at a bankruptcy sale in 1933, and brought it to profitability by 1950. After a frustrating and relentless pursuit, Eugene convinced Agnes to marry him. During their honeymoon, they visited Steichen at his home in Voulangis, France, which is probably when the idea to commission a mural series for their new townhouse was conceived. Agnes continued her engagement with the arts throughout her life, becoming a published authority on Chinese art. Her philanthropy supported several causes, and she influenced national policy in education and civil rights, as well as social welfare programs.

The Mural: In Exaltation of Flowers

Steichen’s initial preparation included creating a three-dimensional model of the foyer at one-third scale, to help him visualize the setting and determine the configuration and flow of the design across the panels. He then laid out the compositions at a reduced scale to determine the final design before creating the works shown here. The canvases measure 120 inches in height. Two are 96 inches in width and the remaining five are 55 inches. Each bears on its reverse a stamp from a French art supplier, which supports reports that Steichen executed the commission almost entirely in France.

Temporary financial reverses compelled the Meyers to sell their townhouse in 1914, before the murals could be installed. Since neither a floor plan of the foyer nor Steichen’s architectural model exist today, it is impossible to be certain of their intended placement in that space. However, the entire series was exhibited once during Steichen’s lifetime, in 1915 at Knoedler Gallery in New York City. After over a century, these works were conserved and exhibited for the first time at Dallas Museum of Art from September 5, 2017 through May 28, 2018. To learn more about the conservation of the panels, visit the Dallas Museum of Art’s website.

The compositions of the canvases combine the aesthetics of Symbolism and Art Nouveau, while slightly anticipating the Art Deco style. The costumes and poses are reminiscent of Steichen’s own fashion photography from 1911 for the Paris couturier Paul Poiret (1879–1944). Steichen’s staging of the larger than life-size figures at varying heights, in addition to the visual contrasts between the reflective gold leaf and matte-tempera painted surfaces, leads the viewer’s eyes in a rhythmic dance across the whole of the decorative scheme.

For detailed information on each panel featured in In Exaltation of Flowers, download the Gallery Guide.

Looking Questions

  • What do you see? Describe all the mural’s details.
  • Describe the colors and brushstrokes used in the painting.
  • How would you describe the figures depicted in the works?
  • Describe the use of space or depth.
  • Do you see any objects that could be considered symbols? What could they represent?
  • If you could tell a story about the panels, what would it be?

About the Artist

Edward (“Eduard”) J. Steichen (1879–1973), a photographer and painter, was born in Luxembourg in 1879. After immigrating to America in 1881, his family settled in Milwaukee, where Steichen studied art and, in 1898, helped establish the Milwaukee Art Students League. Shortly after his first solo exhibition there, he was introduced to the photographer and New York gallerist Alfred Stieglitz (1864–1946). They forged a close friendship and collaborative working relationship that spurred the development of the Photo Secession, a group dedicated to the promotion of photography as an art medium. They also organized exhibitions at Stieglitz’s 291 gallery and edited the periodical Camera Work. At 291, Steichen met and became good friends with the so-called “Three Graces” of the gallery—Agnes Ernst (later Meyer) and the artists Katharine Rhoades and Marion Beckett, all of whom appear in In Exaltation of Flowers.

A few years after completing the murals, Steichen enlisted and served as an aerial photographer during World War I. Shortly after the war, he changed his first name to “Edward” and ceased painting entirely (destroying all paintings that remained in his possession) and focused solely on photography. In 1923, he took a job as chief photographer for Condé Nast Publications. Following Steichen’s service as the director of the Naval Aviation Photographic Unit during World War II, his war documentary, The Fighting Lady, won the 1944 Academy Award for best documentary feature. He led The Museum of Modern Art’s Department of Photography in New York City from 1947 to 1962, and in 1963 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Related Resources

Gallery Activity for Middle and High School Students, Looking at Murals

Exhibit Gallery Guide on In Exaltation of Flowers and A Wooded Watershed

Daniel Garber Curriculum Guide and Activities

Bridging Two American Muralists: Daniel Garber and Edward Steichen, October 9, 2018 – April 15, 2019.

To learn more information on the installation, Bridging Two American Muralists, visit our previous post.

Selected References: 

Edward Steichen: Biography, International Center for Photography, New York, New York.

Edward Steichen: The Photo-Secession Years, Malcolm Daniel, Department of Photographs, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, November 2010.

Dallas Museum of Art, Exhibition Didactics, 2017.

James A. Michener Art Museum Archives and Library

Jan. 8 Art Minute: Edward Steichen, “Isadora Duncan in the Parthenon, Athens”, Toledo Museum of Art.

Murphy, Jessica. Portraiture and Feminine Identity in the Stieglitz Circle: Agnes Ernst Meyer, Katharine Rhoades, and Marion Beckett. Dissertation. University of Delaware, 2009.