Fred Holland Day (1864-1933) was a colorful and controversial character in his time, a wealthy Bostonian who championed photography as an art form. A noted Pictorialist himself, he created romantic photographs that aped paintings. In this he was eclipsed in his own time by his rival Alfred Stieglitz and in history by the rise of Modernism that wiped Pictorialism away as hopelessly old fashion.
In recent years, as time has a way of doing to artist, interests in F. Holland Day and his work has grown. Last year, Day’s work was featured in Maine Moderns: Art in Seguinland, 1900-1940, a show at the Portland Museum of Art of Art of artists such as Clarence White, Marsden Hartley, Max Weber, Marguerite and William Zorach, and Gaston Lachaise who summered in the midcoast Maine communities near Bath such as Georgetown and Harpswell.
The F. Holland Day House in Harpswell in recent years has been home to the F. Holland Day Foundation Retreat Center for people with cancer. The F. Holland Day House in Norwood, Massachusetts, is a museum and the home of the Norwood Historical Society.
Currently (through July 31), the Addison Gallery of American Art at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, is showing the many faces of F. Holland Day in an unusual exhibition entitled Making a Presence: F. Holland Day in Artistic Photography. The show features some 100 works including not only photographs and self-portraits by Day himself but also photographs of Day by such photographers as Gertrude Kasebier, Clarence White, Edward Steichen, and Day’s cousin and protégé Alvin Langdon Coburn.
Day was noted for his male nudes and for the time he devoted to teaching and mentoring young immigrant boys in Boston. One of his star pupils was a Lebanese boy named Kahlil Gibran who went on to international fame as the author of The Prophet.
The photographs in the Addison exhibition show Day to be a gaunt, fey aesthete in all manner of garb, pose, and costume. The pictures range from an anonymous hand-colored albumen print of Day at six years old to a campy Frederick Henry Evans platinum print of Day in 1901 all dolled up in Algerian garb. One of the latest photographs in the show is an anonymous 1913 portrait of Day in a sailor suit smoking a cigar. The artist is staring off into space looking somewhat haunted.
For reasons unknown, Day withdrew from public life in 1917. After his mother died in 1922, he became a recluse in his Norwood home for the rest of his life. That alone might account for the fact that he slipped into obscurity after his death.
A fascinating character. A fascinating show.
[Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Acadedy, Andover MA, 978-749-4015.]