Florine Stettheimer, Insider Artist

Florine Stettheimer, Insider Artist

Barbara Bloemink’s biography paints a complicated picture of an artist whose work both celebrated and critiqued the upper echelons of early-20th-century cultural life.

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Some biographies not only fail to enrich our understanding of their subject but actively impoverish it, as in the case of Florine Stettheimer: A Life in Art, by the critic Parker Tyler. In his 1963 biography of the pioneering modernist and feminist painter, Tyler committed nearly every critical mistake imaginable, from conjecture to contrivance. He later admitted as much to Stettheimer’s family lawyer, saying he used his “overactive imagination to fabricate readings of Stettheimer’s personality, work and intentions.” As a result, we often think of her as an outsider artist who was permanently embittered by the poor reception of her willfully naive paintings. In reality, she was a student of history and a known quantity in the New York art world—an insider through and through. Stettheimer’s work, like her personal life, has suffered from a dearth of rigorous, good-faith appraisals, and because it isn’t easily lumped in with the era’s major movements, it was written off as lovely but ultimately unclassifiable and therefore a blip in art history. Barbara Bloemink’s new biography, The Life and Art of Florine Stettheimer, rectifies this by engaging with the work on its own terms, rather than by stretching it to fit prefabricated discourses on American modern art.

Art in the United States in the period between the two world wars was bounded by two opposing pillars: social realism and abstraction (European surrealism never quite stuck). Stettheimer painted teeming urban scenes like the social realists did, but without their partisan agenda or austere aesthetic. Visually, her flamboyant panoramas have more in common with a Jazz Age tradition that centered on the working class: artists like Archibald Motley, who depicted Black nightlife and club culture, and Reginald Marsh, who captured the escapist debauchery of 1930s Coney Island. Stettheimer painted the salons and garden parties of the high society to which she belonged, often with an ironic mix of glamour and jest. An avid furniture collector and set designer, she reconciled painting and the decorative arts in a way that her detractors viewed as frivolous but was in fact radical in its push toward a holistic integration of art and life. The exquisite detail of her star-studded soirées suggests that they were also part of her artistic practice (at one such party, she served pink champagne, salmon, and strawberry ice cream on a pink tablecloth).

Stettheimer was also, crucially, one of modern art’s first feminists, and not just because she was a pioneer in the field. She painted her iconic Nude Self-Portrait in 1915, at a time when women were arrested for wearing bathing suits that stopped above the knee. As an heiress to one of New York’s greatest family fortunes, she moved among artists and socialites who were uniquely permissive of such transgressions. Nevertheless, her paintings often underscored the ridiculousness of such wealth and how out-of-touch her subjects were with reality; some commentators have even positioned her as a class traitor who lampooned her peers. But if you take a good, hard look at the work, you’ll notice that she’s equally drawn to the sheer fabulousness of it all as well as to their greed and vanity. So while she was by no means an activist, she understood how power worked and saw art as an opportunity to study its machinations. This much is evident in her dignified images of Black and gay social life, for example, which preceded Alice Neel’s famously diverse portraits by 40 years.

As attractive as it must have been to reach for superlatives—feminist role model, champion of the oppressed—Bloemink mostly resists giving her the hero treatment. She even acknowledges Stettheimer’s cruel side, evidenced by the wicked jokes she painted into her friends’ portraits. As a result, an art-historical wrong has been righted: It’s not that Stettheimer was lost or forgotten (her works are held at the Whitney, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art) but that we saw her in only two dimensions. The real Stettheimer was so much more than the “odd-duck lady who lived in the 1920s and painted eccentrically naïve pictures of people socializing at parties,” as one critic put it. This biography goes beyond caricature to paint a fuller, more conflicted portrait of the artist and, by extension, of the era whose ethos she defined.

Florine Stettheimer was born in 1871 in Rochester, N.Y., to a wealthy family of German Jewish merchants. On her mother’s side, the transcontinental Walters clan, she belonged to a network of intermarried families inhabiting a world of “quietly ticking clocks…private elevators…slippered servants’ feet…fires laid behind paper fans,” in the words of one historian. She spent her early life shuttling back and forth between New York and various apartments and vacation homes in Europe, including the family’s ancestral home in Stuttgart, where she took art lessons from the director of her all-girls private school. Her draftsmanship was formidable by the time she enrolled, at age 21, in the Art Students League in New York, which offered the city’s first-ever life drawing class for women. She remained unmarried by her mid-20s—not for lack of romance but because, as a supporter of the New Woman movement, she scorned the philanderers, drunks, and good-for-nothings who comprised her dating pool. One of her poems in particular, of the many reproduced in the biography, sums up her attitude toward marriage:

Sweet little Miss Mouse
Wanted her own house
So she married Mr. Mole
And only got a hole

Much of what we know about Stettheimer is from her frank, sometimes riotous diary entries—or what remains of them after they were posthumously redacted by her old-fashioned younger sister, Ettie. Florine and her two closest sisters, Ettie and Carrie, were inseparable from their mother, Rosetta, whom their father abandoned shortly after they were born. They shared an apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side for most of their lives, and together they were “peripatetic” travelers, in Bloemink’s words, dragging their caravan to villas across Italy, Switzerland, Spain, and France. Stettheimer often moaned about these excursions, mostly because they took time away from her painting, but also because they were unbearably dull. Of one excursion to a baccarat tournament in Belgium, she wrote that the experience “would make a socialist of any human being with a mind.” But she was deliberate in using these trips to bolster her knowledge of Old World artworks and architectural marvels, as well as works from an emerging European avant-garde including Marcel Duchamp and Fernand Léger before they were exhibited stateside. As her diary tells it, no artist was safe from Stettheimer’s hypercritical eye, not even Michaelangelo, whose David statue she criticized—boldly—as disproportionate in form.

By 1912, Stettheimer had tried, and exceeded at, painting in idioms influenced by the Renaissance masters, on the one hand, and Post-Impressionist contemporaries, on the other. What set her on the path to her singular style was the first of many life-changing trips to the Ballets Russes in Paris. Under the direction of founder Sergei Diaghilev, the traveling company not only radicalized ballet but also helped to define the still-nascent aesthetic of modernism by dissolving the walls between different expressive forms: art, music, dance, and design. Art and life merged; high and low culture mingled. Stettheimer was delighted. She started writing a ballet based on the true story of a Parisian riot led by a group of costumed bohemians from the National School of Fine Arts. For four years she privately labored over the libretto, the sets, and the costume designs, elaborating her concepts through watercolors, paintings, and three-dimensional models (her pitches to the Ballets Russes went unrequited, though, and the project petered out). The influence of this medium would continue to bubble below the surface of her work, even as she continued to paint in a traditional academic style.

When Germany declared war on France, the Stettheimers boarded an ocean liner bound for New York, never to return to Europe. Florine had left behind the capital of the 19th century in time to witness its successor’s ascendance in New York, and equipped with progressive ideas from Paris and Berlin, she quickly impressed Manhattan’s growing modernist scene. Not long after arriving, she painted her masterful Nude Self-Portrait, whose composition and symbolism make reference to historical nudes by Titian, Goya, and Manet, all of which were scandalous in their own right. One of the most illuminating passages of the book is Bloemink’s explication of the artistic and political significance of the painting. The contrast in body language from the Manet that inspired it, the position of the bouquet in Stettheimer’s hand, the use of red accents to draw our eye from her head to her toes—Bloemink gets inside Stettheimer’s head to help us understand why she made those decisions, and why they matter. This kind of surgical criticism not only shows how much deliberation went into the work, but more generally makes it impossible to pigeonhole it one way or another.

Stettheimer’s arrival at a mature style coincided with her renewed prominence as a hostess and salonnière. Whether at her Manhattan apartment or in the manicured gardens of her country homes, she entertained everyone from Duchamp to Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe, and E.E. Cummings. La Fête à Duchamp (“Duchamp’s Birthday Party”), from 1917, is one of her first paintings to depict such a scene. It was also among the first to implement her signature format: a crowded panorama on a forward-tilting axis that allowed her to squeeze numerous vignettes into the frame. The palette is almost entirely primary colors, probably made with paints squeezed directly from the tube rather than mixed onto a palette. Blue and yellow trees shade partygoers scattered in various states of repose across a blazing yellow field of grass. Paintings such as these compress both perspective and time, in that they depict sequential events over the course of a day and night. The chronology moves counterclockwise from the top left, with Duchamp arriving in a red sports car, then schmoozing in the center foreground, and finally seated on the veranda with her guests guests, bathed in moonlit blue.

Her panoramas only got busier and more ebullient as she began, literally and figuratively, to widen her scope. New York/Liberty (1918–19), painted in the wake of the armistice that ended World War I, is a view of Manhattan’s southern seaport as President Woodrow Willson sets sail for Europe aboard the USS George Washington. It enacts an incredible balance of realism, in the painstaking accuracy of the Manhattan skyline, and a more surrealist fantasy, in the use of distorted perspective to imbue the city with majesty and magic. It also sports a spectacular novelty frame painted to look like the kind of ornate rope that would tie a velvet curtain, with a carved eagle in gilded paint perched on the top—a step toward her fusion of the fine and decorative arts. Spring Sale at Bendel’s (1921) depicts the women of Manhattan’s elite gripped by a shopping frenzy at the titular department store, then the city’s most exclusive. The shop floor, lit up with pastel yellow and pink garments, is framed by the blood-red carpet of the grand staircase on one side and a fringed velvet curtain on the other. In one of the many tiny dramas playing out throughout the store, two women are literally lunging to claim the same garment.

Any view of this as some kind of anti-capitalist critique is complicated by Stettheimer’s often uncritical celebration of New York glitz. Cathedrals of Wall Street (1939), one of four “Cathedrals” paintings she produced, depicts some kind of military ceremony in front of the New York Stock Exchange. It is an orgy of patriotism, militarism, and wide-eyed money worship that seems especially tone-deaf considering that this was the tail end of the Great Depression. Nonetheless, the “Cathedrals” paintings, which depict Manhattan’s secular spectacles as quasi-religious ceremonies, represent the peak of her mature style, insofar as they fuse the spatial logic of Renaissance painting and modernist theater, an interest she continued to pursue as a stage designer for Gertrude Stein’s experimental opera Four Saints in Three Acts. They’re the perfect articulation of Stettheimer’s eclectic influences, combined in a way that would never have occurred to anyone else.

In a review from 1931, the painter and critic Marsden Hartley commended Stetttheimer’s paintings for their “ultra-lyrical expression of an ultra-feminine spirit.” Parker Tyler, the author of her flawed 1963 biography, defended the painter against this “ultra-feminine” characterization, arguing that it precluded comparisons with male artists. But Stettheimer didn’t mind and even wrote a letter thanking Hartley for understanding her vision, which suggests that she didn’t simply stumble into her style of painting but actively pursued femininity as an aesthetic ideal. The problem with thinking of Stettheimer as an outsider artist, then, is that it implies she did whatever occurred to her, when in fact she was very aware of the artistic fads raging around her and very intentionally followed her own path. In the 1930s, while her contemporaries were pushing for increasingly realistic documents of the material world, or an increasingly metaphysical transcendence of it, Stettheimer continued to hone a style that offered a bit of both, and neither. The feminine look of it was no incidental feature, but precisely what made it so subversive.

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