Iconoclast Alice Austen captured her world with a keen photographer’s eye. Ahead of her time, Austen started taking pictures at only ten years old. Lucky for us, she never stopped. In fact, she took about 8,000 pictures all over the world. Before her death, Life Magazine declared Alice, “America’s first great woman photographer”.
They even celebrated Alice Austen Day to honor her work. This closed the extraordinary circle of her life. She began it in a prominent family. Then lost everything in the stock market crash. In the end, Austen circled back to high status with this celebratory honor. She earned her place in art history.
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But there’s much more to Alice Austen’s life. It’s a story of deep, everlasting love. There’s sports mastery, a privileged upbringing, and tragic loss. Austen was brilliant, complex, and unforgettable. Her home now serves as a gorgeous respite from New York City. Nestled on an exquisite Staten island beach, it has the best view in the five boroughs. Not only that, this historic landmark now offers photography lessons, events, and inspiring tours.
Privileged Pain – Young Alice Austen
Can you imagine growing up with THAT incredible view as your backyard? Alice Austen lived one of the most privileged lifestyles of her day. She traveled the world at whim, went to the fanciest parties, and wanted for nothing. Still, life wasn’t all picnics and parties for her. Her father abandoned the family when Alice was an infant. She thus grew up with a single mother. Austen was also an out lesbian in the 1800s. We can only imagine the challenges that must have entailed. Lucky for Alice, her grandparents house – this home – served as sanctuary through all these struggles. Though she lost it when things got dark during the Great Depression, the house now bears her name.
Being gay in the late 1800s couldn’t have been easy. No amount of money or class would ease that social stigma completely. Austen was fortunate in love, though. She stayed with her first love from the day they met until the day she died – more than fifty years. Womanhood in that era also meant Alice Austen never learned how to manage her family fortune. So, when the stock market plunged in 1929, she didn’t just lose everything at the moment. It meant permanent devastation. Austen took loans against the house and borrowed money from family.
But instead of cutting back her lifestyle, she spent as if these pittances were infinite. This happened to many women of that era. They didn’t have access to financial information at all. That’s because society assumed men took care of such matters. Culture didn’t take into account that women might live independent of men. In this way Alice Austen represents a common occurrence. After all, you don’t have to be gay to be independent. In fact, women often live longer than their partners and some never have one at all.
The armchair above symbolizes Austen’s financial misfortune. After Alice lost her family’s wealth in 1929, she sold much of their household’s finery. That included this chair. She sold it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1933. But the chair’s story doesn’t end there. The current Alice Austen House Museum now rents this armchair from The Met’s collection. The rental costs them about $30 a year. So, the chair served as saving grace for Alice at a time of need. That was when her privilege turned to poverty. But now that same chair’s on display as an example of her fancy early days. This is only one of many ironic features in her gorgeous landmark home.
Outsider Aristocrat Artist – Alice Austen
Alice Austen blazed a trail unlike any other woman of her time. She was different and made it work for her. In fact, her uniqueness may be the very reason she took such exceptional pictures. That’s because outsiders often make great art. Austen showed unprecedented photographic skill and vision. She started as a child in the late 1800s; a time when few women even took pictures. Her uncle introduced Alice to photography and she immediately loved it.
We know Alice Austen stayed in love with taking pictures. How? She faced great adversity in the process over the years. Nothing stopped her. For example, it was a challenge for anyone to take outdoor shots back then. Alice Austen biked around with fifty pounds of photographic equipment to get her street pics. These shots of everyday people in the New York City hustle reveal more than their subjects – they unveil an era. We see in the photos that Alice connected with a wide variety of people. That’s what makes the pictures so engaging. An Alice Austen portrait reveals more than that moment in time. She got the goods on a person with just a photo. All these photographs are at the Alice Austen house. It’s one of the best reasons to go in person. The collection reveals what a visionary artist this remarkable women truly was.
Visit Alice Austen House Today
Alice’s artistic eye has never been more relevant than now. After all, we’re all carrying around fancy cameras in our phones. But no matter how they’re taken, pictures play a primary role in modern lives. So, why not take better photos? It’s often how we communicate these days. From #moods on social media to staging our homes for sale, photography tells our stories. The Alice Austen House now serves the community as more than just a historic landmark. They offer photography classes, exhibits, and events.
2019 was a special year at the house. They underwent a fantastic restoration and upgrade. So, it’s the perfect time for a visit.
No matter if you’re drawn to the site for its beauty, history, or as an artistic resource – you will love it. The view is a once-in-a-lifetime event in itself. The Manhattan skyline glimmers on the left. A glorious bridge towers to the right. Waves lap the immaculate pebbled beach below. All this meets the luscious lawn and storybook house of Alice Austen. A white picket fence welcomes you to her world – like in a dream. You have to see it to believe how perfect it feels.
Thank You Historic Houses Trust!
Thanks to my partnership with Historic Houses Trust of NYC, my visit to Alice Austen House Museum was extra special. I’m excited to see all 23 of their historic home sites across NYC’s 5 boroughs. Travel 367 years of history right along with me! Check ‘em out here @hhtnyc and visit their site – http://historichousetrust.org/.