Edward Steichen: painter, photographer, modern art promoter, museum curator, exhibition creator—and delphinium breeder.
Yes, in addition to his groundbreaking career as a visual artist and museum professional, Steichen was also a renowned horticulturist. While he lived in France, the French Horticultural Society awarded him its gold medal in 1913, and he served as president of the American Delphinium Society from 1935 to 1939. In the early 1930s, after leaving his position as chief of photography for the Condé Nast publications—including Vogue and Vanity Fair—and more than 10 years before beginning his career as Director of the Department of Photography at MoMA, he retired to his Connecticut farm to raise flowers.
Among the delphinium breeds Steichen hybridized there were “Carl Sandburg,” named for his brother-in-law and close friend (and Nobel Prize–winning poet and author), and, in the 1960s, “Connecticut Yankees”…
In June 1936, MoMA presented its first and only dedicated flower show, Edward Steichen’s Delphiniums, which exhibited—for one week only—plants Steichen had raised and then trucked to the Museum’s galleries himself. (Read the original press release for the exhibition in MoMA’s online press archives.)
MoMA has shown other living plants since then. Paula Hayes’s Nocturne of the Limax maximus, which includes “organically shaped vessels made from blown glass, silicone, or acrylic and filled with a rich variety of plant life,” can be seen in the MoMA lobby through April 18, 2011. Perhaps you will have a chance to see it in person; you can read about it, and hear artist Paula Hayes talk about her work, in her series of posts on Inside/Out.
I have found the items concerning Steichen, and a wealth of information about their creator, in the Edward Steichen Archive. Assembled in the Museum’s Department of Photography from 1968 to 1980 as a study resource on Steichen’s life and creative output, the archive includes original correspondence, photographs and sketches, still and moving images, tearsheets, and much more material still to be documented. In September 2010, I began a one-year project of rehousing and fully describing the archive under the auspices of MoMA’s Museum Archives. When the project is completed later this year, the collection will be fully accessible to researchers and scholars. Look for additional blog entries over the course of this year, as I discover more in the Edward Steichen Archive.