Florine Stettheimer’s Independent Spirit Is Revealed in a Thrilling New Biography

Alex Greenberger

BY ALEX GREENBERGER

Painting of four women in a
Florine Stettheimer, Family Portrait II, 1933.MUSEUM OF MODERN ART

In Florine Stettheimer’s painting Family Portrait II (1933), the work that she considered her masterpiece, the artist pictures herself standing beside her sisters Carrie and Ettie and her mother Rosetta. With a palette in hand and chic red stilettos on her feet, a slender Stettheimer looks on as Carrie converses with Rosetta while Ettie gazes upward, as though lost in a reverie. A mysteriously larger-than-life bouquet of three braided flowers erupts from the center of the composition, cutting across a serene blue background. The arcs of these surrealistic flowers mimic the postures of Carrie, Ettie, and Rosetta. Florine, standing awkwardly to the side, herself is never given a compositional rhyme in this way.

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A trio of blooms for a quartet of women: a true conundrum. And yet, as with all things Stettheimer did, this bizarre composition was entirely purposeful. In her thrilling new book Florine Stettheimer: A Biography (Hirmer), art historian Barbara Bloemink persuasively argues that, with this painting, Stettheimer was trying to find a visual way of communicating her élan. “Rosetta, Carrie, and Ettie had spent their lives intertwined, always traveling, living, and socializing together,” Bloemink writes. “Conversely, Florine had constantly battled to find time to paint…. She is free on her own, an artist and observer of the scene.”

Truer words may never have been written about Stettheimer, who, despite being an integral part of the New York art scene during the first half of the 20th century, doesn’t rank anymore among that era’s most famous artists. Her paintings depict many of those figures: the writer and photographer Carl Van Vechten puffing on a cigarette in a crimson-colored room, a svelte Marcel Duchamp whose face emerges from a white void like a supernatural vision, a trenchcoated Alfred Stieglitz peering around at some avant-garde creations, the critic Henry McBride seated on a stool amid small re-creations of some of the beloved objects he wrote about. Rendered in hot colors and done in a style that Marsden Hartley once derisively called “ultra-feminine,” these paintings were praised by critics and seen widely. Yet Stettheimer has historically not gotten blockbuster retrospectives à la Duchamp or been seen as a politically progressive savant à la Van Vechten. Bloemink’s biography marks one passionate attempt to vindicate Stettheimer, whom she labels “one of the most innovative and significant artists of the twentieth century.”

Bloemink, who co-curated a Stettheimer retrospective at the Whitney Museum in 1995 with Elisabeth Sussman, expresses a desire early on to undo a number of the “misrepresentations” put forward about the artist, including the oft-repeated falsehoods that she was something of a recluse and that she never showed her work during her lifetime. (Bloemink attributes some of these to inaccuracies to a 1963 biography by critic Parker Tyler, who “used his imagination” to concoct a life story for Stettheimer, as Van Vechten once wrote. That may be putting it mildly.) If anything, Bloemink’s biography goes to show that Stettheimer may have been more well-connected than most artists of the era.

Painting of a nude woman reclining on a bed while holding a bouquet of flowers and gazing out at the viewer.
Florine Stettheimer, Nude Self-Portrait, ca. 1915.ART PROPERTIES, AVERY ARCHITECTURAL & FINE ARTS LIBRARY, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY, NEW YORK

Partially, this was because Stettheimer came from “the hermetic, financially comfortable world of New York’s prominent German-Jewish members of the ‘One Hundred Families’ of the other society,” as Bloemink writes. Born in 1871, Stettheimer was wealthy and proud of it. Her family’s fortune afforded her the ability to travel with ease. She could hop aboard a ship to Italy, where she could visit the Uffizi and judge Botticelli as lacking when it came to rendering human anatomy, and she could head to Paris, where she could thrill to seeing Matisse’s modernist experiments and pronounce his copycats “idiotic” in her diary. When she came back to the U.S. for good in 1914, “Stettheimer returned home as a mature woman who had developed a taste for the most innovative and controversial elements of the avant-garde arts, including nudity and performances by and about strong, liberated women,” according to Bloemink. That same year, at age 43, Stettheimer made a pact with herself to focus solely on her artistic career.

Sometime around 1915, Stettheimer painted what may be her first great work: Nude Self-Portrait, which depicts the artist eying the viewer suggestively while holding a bouquet. The painting is now regarded as a tear within the fabric of art history, but when it was made, few would have known about it—Stettheimer didn’t exhibit it publicly during her lifetime. There had been reclining nudes before this one, by the likes of Titian, Goya, and Manet, but according to Bloemink, none had been done from a woman’s point of view. Noting Stettheimer’s knowing stare and the inclusion of reddish pubic hair that would at the time have been scandalizing, Bloemink calls the painting “the first known example of a nude self-portrait of a ‘female’ rather than ‘male’ gaze.”

Nothing that Stettheimer produced after Nude Self-Portrait could be called a delectable assault on the day’s norms in quite the same way, but there’s a lot to be said for what follows, even if it is admittedly mixed in quality. A series of staid still lifes—Stettheimer termed her bouquets “eyegays”—gave way to dazzling figurative scenes with people arrayed around flattened spaces. They are quaint scenes, with lithe people celebrating at parties often held outside—think Watteau by way of American modernism. There’s often so much formal experimentation going on—the repetition of the same people in various poses, as a means of collapsing various discrete moments in time into one image, for example—that it can all get lost in just how much visual pleasure each canvas offers. Indeed, Stettheimer even seemed to know this. In one of her many poems, she wrote:

Time
Noise
Color
Outside me
Around me
Knocking me
Jarring me
Hurting me
Rousing me
Smiling
Singing
Forcing me in joy to paint them

Painting of a beach scene in rich yellow tones featuring an array of lithe Black bathers who sway and tan in the sunlight. Some awnings hang over them, and there are also some white bathers beneath umbrellas.
Florine Stettheimer, Asbury Park South, 1920.COLLECTION OF HALLEY K. HARRISBURG AND MICHAEL ROSENFELD, NEW YORK

You’d probably do best to eye these paintings with caution, however: they may be cute-looking, but they also have a bite. In the most rousing section of this biography, Bloemink notes that one grouping of Stettheimer’s paintings sometimes labeled her “entertainment pictures” even contain explicit commentary on race, gender, and sexuality. Take the example of Beauty Contest: To the Memory of P.T. Barnum (1924), which appears to depict a chaotic pageant. One judge wears a dress adorned with swastikas, which by then had already been embraced by far-right German movements. “It is interesting to speculate whether the artist was also making reference to the absence of Jewish contestants among the bathing beauties,” Bloemink notes.

A chaotic painting of a giant temple-like building with an ovular protrait of a man inset, along with American flags waving. There are soldiers on a street beneath it.
Florine Stettheimer, Cathedrals of Wall Street, 1939.METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART

There’s good reason to stump for the political content of Stettheimer’s paintings, but there’s also good reason to not exactly take Bloemink at her word. Writing of the Black bathers who sway and recline in Asbury Park South (1920), Bloemink praises Stettheimer for painting these figures with a “multiplicity” of skin tones and for rendering them “without caricature.” The proverbial bar must be on the floor if we have to praise a white painter for doing this. (Whether the Black figures are truly without caricature is also debatable.) There’s also the issue of Stettheimer’s class, which is more often than not dealt with uncritically. In 1939, toward the end of the Great Depression, Stettheimer painted Cathedrals of Wall Street, a bombastic and exultant homage to capitalism in New York. That may seem like an odd subject, given how much money millions of people lost in the years leading up to this painting’s making, but it may be explained by the fact that Stettheimer and her sisters “rode out the Depression without much hardship and ended up earning a great deal of interest on their investments,” as Bloemink writes. It can be difficult to square Stettheimer’s progressivism with how much her privilege protected her.

Bloemink is at pains to point to Stettheimer as a pioneer, and the word “first” is deployed constantly, even when it doesn’t necessarily make sense. Nude Self-Portrait could be among the first images of its kind, but there certainly are precedents—Paula Modersohn-Becker, who died almost a decade before Stettheimer painted Nude Self-Portrait, portrayed herself naked and gazing outward on more than one occasion. Later on, speaking of the maquettes and set dressing Stettheimer provided for Virgil Thomson’s 1934 opera Four Saints in Three Acts, which was much talked about because it contained an all-Black cast, Bloemink asserts that the production was “the first avant-garde opera.” But this simply isn’t true, given that Alban Berg’s Wozzeck (1925) also exists.

Perhaps Stettheimer would have accepted all this credit, some of it undue; perhaps not. There’s a tendency to ascribe unsubstantiated views to Stettheimer, and Bloemink sticks to the facts of Stettheimer’s life and art. Here is one: Stettheimer was an independent not unlike Marcel Duchamp, who curated a Museum of Modern Art retrospective for her in 1946, two years after she died. She glowed with a light that she once wrote was most visible when she was alone:

When I meet a stranger –
Out of courtesy
I turn on a soft
Pink light
Which is found modest
Even charming
It is a protection
Against wear
And tears
And when
I am rid of
The Always-to-be-Stranger
I turn on my light
And become myself

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