A signed and dated 1943 erotic, lesbian-themed, art deco nude pastel by the notorious New York City libertine photographer and fine artist G. Maillard Kesslere. This defiantly “out” New York vanguard artist made his name by blurring the distinctions between the homosexual arts community and high society during the avant-garde interwar era. Both his pastels and photographs of sensuously-posed follies showgirls were much in demand among sophisticated circles during the exuberant, decadent art deco era.
G. MAILLARD KESSLERE (1894-1979)
A graduate of Syracuse University, George Maillard Kesslere was one of the last students of American impressionist painter, William Merritt Chase. Upon graduation, Kesslere established a portrait studio in Syracuse, New York, in which he practiced both photography and painting. For a brief period he maintained both workplaces, but his success as a photographer in New York caused him to shutter the Syracuse studio in 1922. A set of portraits of Dorothy Dickson published in Vanity Fair cemented his reputation as a talented camera artist and won him a city clientele. Regarded as an aesthete, snob, bisexual libertine, and party-giver, he became an important figure between the wars. Noticing the vogue in the cultural magazines for hazy photographs of nude dancers, Kesslere in 1923 began developing a series of paintings and pastels of diaphanously draped nude girls running in the open air. This arty sort of pin-up painting attracted the attention of Broadway flesh merchant, Earl Carroll who installed Kesslere as his official photographer after the death of John De Mirjian in 1928. The programs for Carroll’s ‘Vanities’ series featured paintings and photos by Kesslere, and an effusive appreciate of his art by some cultural luminary of the day.
For his portraiture he was awarded recognition by the British Royal Academy of Photography, so appended B.P. to his signature in later life. On March 26, 1935, Kesslere exhibited 500 of his photographs, paintings, drawings, and etchings in the Patricia Lounge of Loew’s Ziegfeld Theater.In the 1930s, Kesslere became involved in book projects, such as the 1936 illustrated Personalities of Radio. On July 1, 1947 a traveling exhibition of Kesslere’s work, Stars of Yesterday and Today, toured the United States under the sponsorship of the Theater Library Association. In April 1952, Kesslere donated 6,000 photographs and 500 paintings to the Theater Collection of the New York Public Library.
Kesslere devoted his photographic career to theatrical portraiture and fashion. Trained as a painter, he pursued a parallel career as a fine artist, excelling in pastels. In the mid-1920s following the lead of Orval Hixon and M. I. Boris, he developed a style of vignette photography in which a portrait bust would float disembodied in pictorial space coalescing out of a drawn rendering of the sitter. The success of these mixed media portraits led others, for instance Hal Phyfe, John De Mirjian, even Irving Chidnoff to experiment with the style, leading to a moment in 1926-27 when a distinct New York style of art portraiture prevailed Even in the later 1930s, when a straight style of depiction became standard, Kesslere’s images were so heavily retouched that they seemed graphic rather than photographic. He signed his portraits: G. Maillard Kesslere, B.P.