In 1916, when Florine Stettheimer was 45 and had been painting for over 20 years, she had her first solo show at the Knoedler Gallery in New York. Half way through the show, she wrote in her diary: “I am not selling much to my amazement.” And, at the end, “Nothing sold.” She did not get the recognition she expected as an artist through the sale of her paintings. Reviews were derisive or indifferent at best. It must have hurt. Had her paintings sold, she would have joined the ranks of painters such as O’Keeffe and Aaron Douglas and Arthur Dove and Gaston Lachaise, her Modernist friends who lived from their art. Instead, she was denied an escape from her position as an upper class idler. From then on, she refused all solo shows. She embraced brazenly her identity as upper class, at least publicly. She overpriced her paintings to prevent any sales.
This attitude, which was interpreted as coy or conceited, even controlling, was most likely defensive and had the unfortunate result of keeping her art out of the limelight. Despite a commemorative show organized by Duchamp at MoMA in 1946, two years after her death, her work faded into oblivion. From time to time a minor exhibition was organized — in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, and reviews would appear entitled “Stettheimer revisited,” or “Stettheimer rediscovered,” and then her work would swiftly drift back into obscurity. The excellent, albeit limited, exhibition at the Jewish Museum may finally put Stettheimer back on the map, as feminism has hacked the way for recognition for other women artists such as Georgia O’Keeffe and Frieda Kahlo. A contemporary perspective may also allow a more objective look at the work, accept its unconventional merging of styles, and give it its due as different but not unconnected to the Modernists.
The exhibition, organized largely chronologically, is gracious in ways of giving space between key works to allow for thoughtful consideration, and in grouping other paintings with similar treatments and subjects to invite comparison. Her work before 1916 had been influenced by fauvism and postimpressionism. The painting Family Portrait I (1915) has a treatment of space and light reminiscent of Bonnard, and the color palette of Gauguin. Her subjects to this point had been diverse: country estates, bouquets, portraits of her family and herself. After her paintings were rejected by the art world, she narrowed her gaze to her family, close friends, herself.
Studio Party, or Soiree demonstrates her preoccupations at this stage of her career. In the “studio” of the title, paintings are exhibited that had been part of Stettheimer’s gallery show: we identify A Model which is in fact a portrait of Stettheimer in the nude, and Family Portrait I. In the lower left corner two men are scrutinizing a hidden painting, maybe Portrait of André Brook, after the country estate named André Brook where the Stettheimer ladies spent their summers. The two men are Gaston Lachaise, a sculptor, and Albert Gleizes, a cubist painter. They look baffled, appalled, even nauseated by what they’re seeing. The other characters, including the art critic Leo Stein, prefer to ignore the art. Florine Stettheimer, barely making it into the frame, looks dejected, or at least very tired, certainly without any of the bravado shown in the nude A Model.
Some elements of her mature style are already in place, such as composition and perspective. A painter needs to find solutions to reducing a three-dimensional world to a flat one. Stettheimer equates her personal universe with her visual field and vice versa. She paints her “lived space”, whether her salon or her picnics or parties at her country estate. Her point of view becomes objective, positioned slightly above the subject.
In fact, she places herself quite literally on the balcony of Love Flight of a Pink Candy Heart. This objective distancing and narrative figuration of elements is common to Renaissance painters, particularly those depicting society with an eye to criticize or moralize, such as Pieter Bruegel The Elder and Hieronymus Bosch. Perspective is also flattened, a device that naive painters use to reveal the whole scene without the interference of elements hiding each other. In this detached survey, the assessor is by definition outside. However, as most of her compositions include depictions of herself, she is both external and internal to the painting. As a politically liberal painter and satirist, she’s outside the upper class depicted by her work; but simultaneously she’s a party giving patron. These works do not belong to the category of self portraits, where typically the subject/artist is in the process of painting, looking at likeness in a mirror. With self-portaits, a dialogue takes place between the artist and the reflection, to which the viewer is an intruder. But with Stettheimer’s work, the viewer stands squarely next to Stettheimer the artist when she portrays a Miss Florine Stettheimer, member of a certain society, with the same satirical approach as any of the other players. In fact, one painting is entitled “Portrait of myself” rather than “Self Portrait”.
This was a pivotal time in her work when she developed an outsider artistic approach that was faux naive as well as decorative and illustrative. Merging these styles, which omit any reference to emotion and were all objectionable to the art trends of the time, seemed her way of navigating her inner conflict and contradictions. The eagerness of her early years as an artist gave way to a superficial, distanciating approach that must have offered more protection.
In Sunday Afternoon in the Country, everyone is having fun. There’s lots of joyous frolicking going on. The men attempting upside down positions seem to directly reference the acrobat in Seurat’s The Circus. His influence is also visible in the treatment of the color in the background, where Florine Stettheimer can be identified, as far as we can guess — her face is hidden by a hat. Whatever she is painting is different from the canvas on hand. Her image does not mirror the painter, as does, say, Velasquez in Las Meninas. In fact, this is the last time she portrays herself painting. In all her subsequent work, she is represented idling, lounging, brooding.
Such is the case in Heat (1919), which depicts a birthday party, and a pretty sorry party it is. The table in the foreground figures an eye, with the cake for its iris. This is where the heat originates, as indicated by the progression of the colors’ temperature. The warmest tier, and lowest, gathers Florine and her sister, Ettie, both of whom are literally melting on their daybeds, to the point of incapacitation. Florine barely musters the energy to tease a cat. One white shoe is off. The two other sisters, Stella and Carrie, who did not lead creative careers, are occupied with stereotypically feminine tasks. They belong to the second tier, under less heat, less scrutiny. The mother, royal as ever, reigns at the top of the family pyramid. She does not suffer from the heat, but sits still and surprised, perhaps even saddened. The highest tier is an uninviting green water, with a bridge leading nowhere: no escape that way.
While the painting alludes to Japanese art with its unrolled perspective and its bouquet of blossoms and drooping trees, it prefigures surrealism, the eye symbolizing the scrutiny the sisters are under, either from society or more likely from their mother, as the writing on the cake indicates. The women don’t interact, they don’t talk, they don’t look at each other. A strong feeling of doom and an inescapable gloom, as inescapable as the heat itself, permeates the celebration. In every painting where family members are featured, their depiction seems to hide far more than it shows, using a symbolic language only Stettheimer seems to have the clue to.
In real life, as on canvas, the family dynamics mystified the people who knew them. While personal background does not necessarily define or illuminate an artist’s work, Stettheimer painted her family so frequently that it is of interest to explore its history. From a wealthy banking background, the family suffered the desertion of the father when the children, five of them, were still young. Their mother’s personal fortune allowed them to retain a lifestyle that was hardly less lavish. Portrait of My Mother (1925) portrays the matriarch cornered in her environment, her expression vacuous, as a kind of floating pod, and one has to wonder what’s left inside the pod once the peas grew out of the maternal realm. Or did they? One sister married, as did the only brother. But the three younger sisters, Florine, Carrie and Ettie, lived into their 60s with a mother who didn’t die until the age of 93. The paintings show them lounging in beds, in armchairs, yet never are they readying for sex nor enjoying post coital bliss. Three virgin princesses. The Jewish Museum exhibition’s comments do not once mention the word “sexuality,” which is particularly remarkable considering that Stettheimer painted herself in the nude. One might deduce from her poems that she was infatuated at some point with her close friend Marcel Duchamp, but there is no evidence from her life’s records that she ever had an intimate relationship with a man. In her 1915 portrait, A Model, she mocks Manet’s Olympia, in which a courtesan daringly offers her body to the viewer. Florine Stettheimer assertively refuses access to her sexuality. Not even the bouquet is offered the viewer.
Beginning with the Renaissance, artists represented the upper classes without a hint of satire or criticism: the wealthy were the client. By the mid 19th century, the upper classes, with all their pomp and splendor, had practically disappeared as a subject, at least for the painters who left their mark on art history. These painters, and their fellow writers too, were mostly renegades from the bourgeoisie — Van Gogh, Zola, Renoir, Maupassant, Degas, Pirandello — who were turning their attention to the lower classes. But Stettheimer, who was from the upper class, did not need to please her clients, nor did she adhere to art trends. In Spring Sale at Bendel’s (1921), and in other works such as Lake Placid (1919) and Fete on the Lake (undated), which all focus on her milieu, people resemble fashion plates, with dainty hands and feet, elongated limbs, their faces simplified with a naive, childlike technique. As in commedia del’ arte or the portraits of saints in a medieval cathedral, the characters in her paintings are identified by signs: glasses for Henry McBride, red shoes and red bobbed hair for Florine Stettheimer. Even more simply and naively, their names are spelled out. The painting ends up looking like a kind of wall paper where the pattern is made of various decorative elements all reduced to the same essence: elegantly dressed bodies, pretty objects, draperies, everything. These elements, in Spring Sale at Bendel’s, imbue with feverous energy an intense ballet at the upscale fashion store. The cast of female patrons, their costumes discarded, lose all control, while the staff in black remains calm and self-possessed. Fabrics are snakelike, provoking the coven into a frenzied trance of desire. In this reveal, the space is shaped like a baroque bouquet with screens and panaches of feathers. Baroque, derived from the Portuguese word for irregular pearl, followed historically the realization that earth, and therefore humans, were not the center of the universe. Faith in the existence of the soul faltered when a sense of divine order in the world began to vanish. And there is very little order, nor is there much soul in the upper class of Stettheimer. It’s a world of appearances, surfaces, stages, transparencies. Stettheimer chose to depict a class that was not accepted anymore as a subject, and she chose to do so in a combination of styles which were also marginal: naive, illustrative, decorative. Illustrations by definition carry information. Commissioned for magazines or books, they have a purpose. But Stettheimer subverted them as a humorous way to satirize the upper classes. She did not take a stern, puritan look at wealth. On the contrary, it is enjoyable, it allows her characters to buy elegance and decorative luxury. But it does not seem to provide any substantial satisfaction, nor can we infer that it in any way feeds the soul. It’s all pretty, sweet, funny, but it is acerbic as well.
When Stettheimer ventured to look outside her milieu, she allowed her work to take on a poetic flight. Dance was a great inspiration to her, and the Jewish Museum show pays tribute to this passion. Music (c. 1920) is one example. While the dire Heat featured an iteration from temperature sensation to visual symbols, Music offers a lyrical translation from sound to the visual realm. In the center of an icy stage, a tiny dancer is poised on pointes, while another performs a wild horizontal jig to the music of the piano. Poetic, poignant, the figures are fragile and isolated from each other by a lot of cold, transparent, reflecting nothingness. The tree has no roots. With his sexually ambiguous body, Nijinsky is like a vision dreamed up by Florine lying in bed under her elaborate, signature canopy. No family around, no doom, but art shaping an enchanted world with a vibrant composition and elegantly colored elements. The artist seems more confident of her developing style, related to current art movements, but independent. This artistic gratification is also evident in her Portrait of Myself (1923), a poetic, tender painting of the artist floating on a red flame, above earthly considerations. Flowers spring from her loins, these symbols of her creativity substituting for her sexuality. Two sets of eyes, one above the other, hint to the doubling up of her persona. There is also affection in the portraits she made of her friends who were supporters of her art, such as Duchamp and Henry McBride. While iconographic, they come across as real human beings. Duchamp is elegant and manipulative, Henry McBride debonair and well meaning.
Affection and esteem are even more apparent in the painting Asbury Park South (1920) which pictures a very different scene. The composition would be quite reminiscent of Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, with its vertical lines, if its characters were not more lively and spirited than the French bourgeoisie. The sand, the sea and the sky, all a vaporous creamy beige, merge into each other. The absence of a horizon, contrasting with the claustrophobic representations of Stettheimer’s milieu, suggests an openness in the people catalogued here: couples, families, athletes, all African-Americans except for the artist and a couple of her friends. Real, meaningful exchanges take place within the groups: the friends link hands with each other. A father playfully passes an American flag to his child. Another child waves two American flags. The flags are small, demanding close attention to even see them and to see that these people are genuine Americans, with their loves and cares, and not caricatured stereotypes. Only the group of three stylized athletes seems to come from a different realm, a poster for a show maybe? Stettheimer lived at a time – and was well aware of the phenomena – when white people were flocking to Harlem to watch African Americans perform. These three stylized “bodies,” looking like a poster advertising a show, could be a reference to that voyeurism. More interesting here is Stetthimer’s politics, and no less her humanity, in that the beaches in Asbury Park were a segregated at the time, and Stettheimer’s message against segregation and the humiliation of African Americans is radically clear. She was coming up with an original American art, painting American societal landscapes, where she affirmed her democratic ideals and her love for her country.
Four Saints in Three Acts, performance photograph by White Studio, New York, March 10, 1934
Her Cathedral series, a most important phase in the artist’s later career, is unfortunately absent from the Jewish Museum show. In these large and intricate works, which pre-date and prefigure murals, she attempted complete panoramas of the world of art, the world of theater, the world of politics, the world of wealth. Another outlet for her political and creative leanings came through courtesy of Virgil Thomson. He wrote the music for the opera Four Saints in Three Acts, with a libretto from Gertrude Stein, and Stettheimer was commissioned to do the sets and costumes. The show is well represented in the exhibit, with models, photographs and performance footage. This collaboration, breaking down her isolation as an artist, also offered her the most positive critical response of her career, bringing her a late measure of recognition. The final painting of the exhibition rounds up perfectly this last stage of Stettheimer’s career, conveying a feeling of balance and fulfillment. Family Portrait II (1933), following Family Portrait I by 18 years and Heat by 14 years, shows how far she had come. The first family portrait was in the French fashion, with the kind of intimate scale of a Bonnard. In the 1918 Heat, she was developing her own style, but the family seemed confining and debilitating. In 1933, she has come into her own. The colors that were sourly clashing in the 1918 work are juxtaposed for harmony. Blue, a soothing hue expressing tradition which was inexistent in the early work, is now part of her palette. The family, lined up on a single level instead of organized in a hierarchy, is still presented on a stage with curtains on the side, a dreamy New York City serving as scenery. But each sister, standing tall now, has her own identity. In the middle of it all, floating across the composition, are the flowers, the beautiful flowers that Florine, having put down her book, is dreaming for us.
Arabella Hutter von Arx is a writer with a background in film and TV production. While producing for the BBC, Channel 4, Gaumont, Bravo (Inside the Actors’ Studio) then working as the executive director of IQ, an international organization of producers, she contributed regularly articles for magazines and European newspapers. She devotes now all her time to writing, with a particular focus on the arts and on women’s issues.