In many ways, Clarence White (1871-1925) was the archetypal American artist. He was driven to his art – photography, which was hardly considered “art” at the time – by inspiration and love of the medium. He was poor, so he worked long hours as a bookkeeper to support his family and his photography habit: He could only afford two glass plates a week, so he considered carefully what he would do with them. And while White had no formal training, he found acclaim among his peers and an audience among the public. A pioneer, he founded the first school in America dedicated to teaching photography as an art, the Seguinland School of Photography in Georgetown.

Most notably, Alfred Steiglitz, the world’s leading champion of art photography, took an interest in White, so, along with Steiglitz and nine others, White was a founding member of the New York-based Photo-Secession, the first American organization dedicated to furthering pictorialism and elevating photography to the status of fine art.

Despite the financial struggles, White upped his family from Ohio and moved to New York.

What we do not see in the gorgeous exhibition “Clarence H. White and His World: The Art and Craft of Photography, 1895-1925,” now on view at the Portland Museum of Art, is struggle. Considering that White did not produce a large body of work, the show is huge and goes deep into considering not only White’s work, but its cultural context as well.

“The Mirror,” 1912, varnished platinum print.

White is easy to appreciate. Using the logic of painting – formalism, focus, genre, perspective, value, volume, texture, tonality, etc. – pictorialism is easy to follow. We see in White a photograph with an extraordinary eye from the start: For example, his 1897 “The Readers” – made soon after his introduction to photography – features two young women in flowing dresses, one in black, the other in white, reading by window light – a soft and tonal moment of quiet, sisterly intimacy. The picture long remained popular while earning White awards and critical acclaim.

White could also take simple-seeming subjects and give them unexpected depth. His 1912 “Girl with Mirror” is almost misleadingly complicated, yet it succeeds by subtlety we would expect from the likes of Vermeer or Valsquez: a young woman in black stands in profile by an open window. (And yes, there is a direct reference to the structure of Whistler’s famous portrait of his mother.) We might surmise the light reflected on her face is from the glass of the open window, but it tilts off to the side.

Looking more closely, we see the woman is reflecting the light onto her lower face with a mirror in her hand. And yet we then are almost forced to miss the other mirror behind her that again reflects her face. Despite his lack of technical and art training, this work is a technical marvel and a masterful take on an entire suite of art historical precedents.

There are dozens of notable works: an early city view of Ohio, a portrait of Steiglitz, a nude with a mirror, a boy with a glass bubble in front of a rainy window, boys wrestling off in the corner of a landscape like Delacroix’s 1861 Saint-Sulpice masterpiece “Jacob Wrestling the Angel.” There are simply too many exciting photographs to list.

Yet several of the most exciting works in the show are not by White. They’re not even photographs, but paintings by Thomas Dewing (“Summer,” 1890) and Edmund Tarbell’s 1898 “The Venetian Blind,” a jaw-dropping interior nude that might probably made Edgar Degas envious. These works brilliantly set the stage for the broader expectations and concerns of the Aesthetic Movement, commonly associated with Whistler and thumbnail-described as “art for art’s sake.” To be sure, photographic Pictorialism (essentially, the idea that photos should seek the visual qualities of paintings) was part of this, but these cultural currents were driven by richer inclinations than these limiting thumbnail descriptions.

“The Sea (Rose Pastor Stokes, Caritas Island, Rhode Island),” 1909, platinum print.

“Clarence H. White” also includes many photographic works by (as well as portraits of) White’s accomplished colleagues and impressive students. Names like Steiglitz and Steichen might top the lists filled out by the likes of Alvin Colburn, Holland Day and Arthur Wesley Dow, but the show finishes with a section of works by White’s female students. And, yes, it is notable he took female students – but we’ll come back to that.

The apt exhibition title points to the international arts and crafts movement that was founded in Britain and flourished throughout Europe and America well into the 1920s. It’s core was political socialism – and White was all in.

The cover of the exhibition’s extraordinary catalog (it’s a beast, but it’s a 12-course meal for the hungry) features White’s 1909 photograph, “The Sea.” It features a young woman with windswept hair in a long dress gazing dreamily across the coastal horizon. While the scene nods to Winslow Homer, it lacks his propensity for the physicality of female figures. In many ways, it is the classic aesthetic movement image: The intimacy isn’t physical; it’s dreamswept. The figure looks away, so we can admire her graceful throat with our (presumably, male) gaze as long as we want. It is, quite simply, a beautiful image. But, of course, this is the problem: that word, “beauty.”

For the sake of understanding the goal of the pictorialists and the artists of the aesthetic movement, let’s start by going with what they were trying to do instead of talking around it.

Quite simply, they were trying to achieve that sense of aesthetic fulfillment that would define a satisfying painting, a great building, an excellent garden or a handsome person: beauty. They weren’t setting out to create a language or discourse, but, in fact, to work around these mediating filters.

“Drops of Rain (;Dew Drops),” 1902, platinum print.

I dislike the term “art for art’s sake” because it cheapens the experience for both artist and viewer. What we’re talking about is the deeply rich and complicated sense of sensibility. And our sensibilities are the complex brew of everything we know, all that we’ve seen, been taught, or found on our own – our entire life experience. Whereas academic art had followed specific codes for what was important, beautiful, righteous, appropriate, etc., the aesthetic movements (and cultural modernism in general) discarded these coded bullet points in favor of something inherent in all of us – our sense of culture, or rather, of beauty.

Oh, yeah. Socialism. The beautiful young model in “The Sea” is none other than Rose Pastor Stokes, the Jewish immigrant who made her way from working in a cigar factory to being one of the top voices for American socialists. Stokes was an ardent and active feminist.

At a glance, the exhibition does an extraordinary job establishing a visual context for the Photo-Secession and pictorialism.

But it also gives depth to tougher topics, such as the roles of the female figures – and photographers. And this matters because this kind of show – one filled with female nudes and photographs dedicated to beauty – is the kind of show that could wrongly be written off with an ignorant flick of the wrist, as though political or feminist cultural issues weren’t considered or discussed.

What the exhibition does best, however, is give White his due as one of America’s greatest photographers. It closes soon. Don’t miss it.

Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at:

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