Palmer Museum’s ‘Pictorialist Portraits’ shows photographer’s role in a movement

Eva Watson-Schütze’s photograph, “William Butler Yeats,” is part of the Palmer Museum of Art’s collection and included in a new exhibit featuring the pictorial photographer’s work.
Eva Watson-Schütze’s photograph, “William Butler Yeats,” is part of the Palmer Museum of Art’s collection and included in a new exhibit featuring the pictorial photographer’s work. Photo provided

With “Pictorialist Portraits,” the Palmer Museum of Art will present an exhibition of portraits by photographer Eva Watson-Schütze, on display Jan. 10-April 30.

Watson-Schütze is best known for her affiliation with the Photo-Secession, the early-20th century organization of elite Pictorial photographers founded by Alfred Stieglitz and dedicated to the recognition of photography as a fine art. Also on view will be a selection of works by notable Pictorialist photographers drawn from the museum’s permanent collection.

“In part, the impetus for the show was to celebrate the acquisition of this remarkable cache of photographs thanks to the generosity of Jon Randall Plummer, and also to help bolster the reputation of a gifted photographer whose work deserves to be seen and studied,” said Palmer Museum Curator Joyce Robinson, who is overseeing the installation of the show.

Along with Robinson, Gillian Greenhill Hannum serves as guest co-curator of the exhibition. Hannum, who grew up in State College, is now a professor of art history at Manhattanville College.

Most the photos in the exhibition were donated to the museum by collector Jon Randall Plummer in 2014. From the time the gift came in, Robinson thought it would make for an interesting show, and she approached Hannum about it last spring.

“Joyce knew that I had some expertise in the work of women pictorial photographers and asked if I would be interested in working with this collection of photos by Eva Watson-Schütze,” Hannum said. “We selected the images in the show together — choosing some from the Palmer’s broader collection to contextualize the Watson-Schütze portraits — and I provided most of the background research for the wall labels.”

Born Eva Lawrence Watson, the artist was enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts when she was 15 years old. Watson-Schütze came to Stieglitz’s attention in 1898, when her work was selected for exhibition in the First Philadelphia Photographic Salon. By late 1901, the year she married Martin Schütze, Watson-Schütze would be celebrated as one of “The Foremost Women Photographers in America” in an important series of articles in the Ladies’ Home Journal.

During these years, Watson-Schütze became affiliated with Byrdcliffe, the Woodstock art colony, and the photos in the Palmer exhibit largely represent members of the colony and offer insight into the community that nurtured and inspired the photographer. Characterized by a misty soft focus, her photographs were mainly figure studies and portraits, including many of women and children.

“The history of Byrdcliffe, and its ties to members of the Hull House community in Chicago, of which Eva and her husband were a part, is interesting,” Hannum said. “Eva and Martin’s network of friends and acquaintances, and their long connection with Byrdcliffe also sheds light on the Arts and Crafts Movement in America. Eva traditionally trained as an artist and became a recognized leader in the Pictorialist movement, and this exhibition gives a good overview of Pictorialism and puts her work into the movement’s larger context.”

While Watson-Schütze had a professional portrait studio in Chicago, many of her photographs — including most of those in the exhibition — were of people she knew.

“This lends both an intimacy and also a psychological depth to her portraits that elevates them above run-of-the-mill studio work of the time,” Hannum said. “Also, her training as a painter, and especially the influence of her teacher, Thomas Eakins, one of the great portraitists in the history of American art, carries through into her photography in terms of her understanding of light and frequent choice of posing subjects engaged in various activities.”

Hannum will give a gallery talk on the exhibition at 12:10 p.m. on Jan. 27 and Robinson will present a gallery talk on April 14.


  • What: “Eva Watson-Schütze: Pictorialist Portraits”
  • When: Jan. 10-April 30
  • Where: Palmer Museum of Art, University Park
  • Info: http://www.palmermuseum.psu.edu