PORTLAND, Maine — This haunting and haunted 1909 painting by Edward Steichen (1879-1973), in the Portland Museum of Art, catches the onset of that convulsive moment when modern art tries to shed its skin and become something new.
If it points back to the 19th century — to Whistler and his nocturnes, which seemed to be “summoned,” as one contemporary commentator wrote, “with closed eyes, and set free from everything coarse and material” — it points just as surely forward to modernist masters of color like Milton Avery and Mark Rothko.
Just a gauzy veil away from being nothing, it doesn’t come up well in reproduction. It’s far more entrancing in the flesh, where its limpid washes of thinned paint layer cool blues over turquoise, mauve, and green.
What does the picture actually show? Under moonlit sky, we see the charismatic dancer Isadora Duncan, a guest of Steichen’s, dancing at night in the gardens of his home at Voulangis, not far from Paris.
There, apparently under the influence of Monet’s garden at Giverny, Steichen had cultivated an exquisite sanctuary — a place, wrote his daughter, which was “a bottomless well of creativity, peace, challenge, joy, inspiration, surcease, renewal — and sheer sensual pleasure.”
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