A biography of two of the 20th century’s most famous artist couples, who “prodded, inspired, irritated, and encouraged one another as they grew into modes of relationship that none could have foreseen.”
Readers could be forgiven for thinking the world doesn’t need another biography of Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O’Keeffe. However, Burke (No Regrets: The Life of Edith Piaf, 2011, etc.) distinguishes her book from previous treatments by investigating the dynamic between the more famous couple and the artists who would become their protégés and, for several years in the 1920s and ’30s, a couple: Paul Strand, the aspiring young photographer who met Stieglitz upon visiting the legendary 291 studio that Stieglitz opened in New York in 1905; and Rebecca Salsbury, better known as Beck, the well-to-do daughter of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show partner and a woman determined to become an artist, “an act of defiance that would meet with her mother’s disapproval.” Throughout the book, the author quotes liberally from the trove of surviving letters among the four principals. Yet despite the comprehensiveness of the narrative, it has a faint pulse. The linear story is a laundry list of events in the quartet’s lives, but it contains relatively little drama. Emmy, Stieglitz’s brewery-heiress first wife, is all but missing from the story. One assumes that their marriage overflowed with friction, especially after Stieglitz began cheating on her with O’Keeffe while also conducting a “risqué correspondence” with Beck, but one doesn’t fully get that sense from the narrative. Some readers might prefer to know more about that marriage than about Stieglitz’s eye pain or O’Keeffe’s swollen legs after a smallpox vaccination. Still, there’s enough juicy material here to intrigue readers interested in the private lives of artists—e.g., the revelation that Stieglitz and O’Keeffe had nicknames for one another’s private parts (“Miss Fluffy” and the reportedly ironic “Little Fella”) and, when the couple were apart, Stieglitz “would often ask after Fluffy’s welfare.”
A well-researched if surprisingly cool account of sensual artists.