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.”
Duncan, a fan of Nietzsche, was at the forefront of a new cult of the body, of liberated sexuality and unconstrained emotion. If all that sounds fabulously “modern,” it was and it wasn’t.
For in truth, as a dancer, Duncan was still under the spell of the Greeks, and of the serpentine “line of beauty,” a trusty linchpin of aesthetics since the 18th century. Compare her body posture in Steichen’s painting to the abruptly angular movements made notorious three years later by Vaslav Nijinsky in “L’apres-midi d’un faun,” and you have a neat little lesson in the difference between fervent enthusiasm and actual radicalism.
Steichen himself felt this difference. He was enthusiastic about painting. He was passionate about photography.
He had already founded, with Alfred Stieglitz, the Photo-Secession group. After the Great War, when he headed a unit specializing in sharp focus aerial photography, he threw himself into the new medium. It was, after all — just like the war — unambiguously modern.
After a distinguished career in fashion and advertising photography, he ended up heading the Museum of Modern Art’s department of photography. But before that, in the early 1920s, he started destroying his paintings.
The process, gradual at first, culminated in an incident it’s hard to get out of your mind, especially in front of “Moonlight Dance, Voulangis.” He told his French gardener to gather them all into a pile in the very garden depicted here, and he set them alight. He danced around the ensuing bonfire.
Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee