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Studio, Matzene

Time Period: 
1900-1937
Location: 
Chicago, New York, Los Angeles
Biography: 

Matzene Studio was the name given to three art photography galleries founded by Danish "Count" Jens Rudolph Matzene (1875?-1950) in Chicago (1900-1937), New York City (1908-1911), and Los Angeles (1911-1919). Details of Matzene's early life are obscure. He listed Denmark as his birthplace in the 1910 U. S. Census, but chose England as his country of origin on his 1918 U.S. Draft Registration and his naturalization papers. Late in life, he told acquaintances that he was born in Hungary. His title, too, lacks any firm documentation. He sported it in Chicago and New York, but dropped it after moving to Los Angeles and changing his name to Richard Gordon Matzene. His wife, Antonia, insisted on being called Countess in Los Angeles, even decades after the break-up of the marriage. Matzene claimed that as a boy he was schooled in England and Italy and that his parents were diplomats. At other times, he claimed to have attended the Sorbonne and learned painting there, but was directed into photography by art instructors who found his brushwork amateurish.

The first documented fact of his life is his residence in Chicago in 1900. He opened a studio, and immediately impressed people with his mastery of the art of photography, particularly his renderings of women. His "life studies" for Ella Wheeler Wilcox's epic poem, Maurine, (W. B. Conkey & Co., 1901) visualized the spirit of romantic aestheticism suffusing the verse and made his name in the city's artistic circles. The Tribune reckoned Matzene so adept in the modern mysteries of beauty that they had him do all the portraiture of the elaborate search in winter of 1907 to find the most beautiful woman in Chicago. Matzene's Chicago career was not without its travails, however. An ex-employee robbed the studio of four lenses and substantial numbers of glass negative plates in July 1903. On March 23, 1904, a fire at the 192 Michigan premises caused $8,000 damage.

Having established himself as a major force in Chicago, Matzene turned over management of the studio to his brother-in-law, George Baumer, who ran the business for a decade before turning it over to Chicago's principle photographic tycoon, Evan Evans, CEO of Moffett and Drake Studios. Baumer in the early 1910s secured an exclusive contract with the Chicago Opera Company to serve as its portraitist. Throughout the decade and into the 1920s Matzene Studio Chicago's camera man, Charles C. Pike, vied with Herman Mishkin of New York as the most psychologically insightful portraits of opera singers.

Count Matzene meanwhile moved east, opening a sumptuous salon and art gallery at 389 Fifth Avenue in New York City. His plan was to cater exclusively to an elite clientele. The design failed. He married heiress Antonia Baumer in May 1909 in New Orleans and moved with her to Syracuse in 1909, residing there as the Manhattan business collapsed and bankruptcy claims exceeding $70,000 were filed against him in October 1911. With Baumer, he relocated to Los Angeles, changed his name to Richard Gordon Matzene and knocked several years off his official stated birth.

Matzene's Nordic charm and title enabled him to launch at the time of the trial a successful venture there, in part because of the studio’s arrangement with the L.A. Times to supply society and theatrical portraits for the paper. He vied for first place in the market against Lindstedt, A.W. Witzel, Fred Hartsook, and A. Mojonier. Business thrived until 1919. He was the one figure who had worked on Broadway during its visual efflorescence and was resident in Los Angeles during the birth of Hollywood. He was the most articulate original definer of glamour in early Hollywood portraiture.

In 1918 he began thinking of himself as a movie producer, one of the independents working at the huge production facility at Robert Brunton Studio. His attempt to create "Matzene Productions" failed, but he jury-rigged a partnership arrangement and co-directed with David Hartford the 1919 film, "It Happened in Paris" starring Sarah Bernhardt's protege, Mde. Yorska, and featuring footage of Bernhardt herself. The film bombed, gaining notice in Hollywood only because Madame Yorska had plastic surgery on her nose for the role, thus marking the first instance of body modification by a major entertainer in Hollywood. The financial debacle that ensued caused Matzene to close his studio and journey forth on the first of several circuits about the world.

At various times in the 1920s he had studios in Shanghai, China, and Simla, Himachal Pradesh, India. The latter was visited by the royal family of Nepal for a portrait sitting. He spent his surplus income on the acquisition of oriental antiquities and art. Sometime in the late 1927s, during one of his cruises, he encountered an Oklahoma oil baron who informed him of Ponca City, a town brimming with the newly wealthy, in dire need of guidance in purchasing art. Matzene settled in Ponca City and became the town's man of mystery, living well off of art brokerage and decorator services. He photographed Native Americans, but abandoned all interest in Society portraiture. He gave substantial collections of oriental art to the University of Oklahoma and the Ponca City Library, where they remain on display.

His professional philosophy was summed up in a sentence delivered early in his career: "In these days a photographer needs to be an artist, a chemist, a keen observer, and perhaps a raconteur all in one."

NOTES: Syracuse Herald (Oct 11, 1911). David S. Shields/ALS

Specialty: 

Count Matzene specialized in artistic portraiture, particularly of women. Because pose was centrally significant in his eyes as a vehicle of personality, he favored images in which the whole body or substantial portions were visible. He devalued ornate scenery emphasizing instead the quality of the sitters' clothing. On February 4, 1904, Matzene gave to the Chicago Tribune his philosophy for female portraiture. He indicated that it had to manifest the new spirit in portrait photography, stressing individuality and character, but could not, like male portraiture, depend upon "characteristic expression." Instead pose and position conveyed personality. Yet pose must seem poise, and there must be a suggestion of impulsive movement. He also indicated that dress, rather than setting, was the crucial material index of character.