Stettheimer, Florine (1871–1944)
Stettheimer, Florine (1871–1944)
American artist whose lavish, satirical paintings were rediscovered to great acclaim 50 years after her death. Born in Rochester, New York, on August 19, 1871; died in New York City on May 11, 1944; fourth of five children and third daughter of Joseph Stettheimer (a banker) and Rosetta (Walter) Stettheimer; privately tutored; studied painting at the Art Students League, and in Munich, Berlin, and Stuttgart, Germany; never married; no children.
Flowers with Wallpaper/Still Life No. 1 (1915); Bowl of Tulips (1916); Lake Placid (1919); Ashbury Park South (1920); Flowers (1921); Still Life with Flowers (1921); Portrait of Carl Van Vechten (1922); Spring Sale at Bendel's (1922); Portrait of Myself (1923); Beauty Contest (1924); Natatorium Undine (1927); Bouquet for Ettie (1927); Portrait of Stieglitz (1928); Three Flowers and a Dragonfly (1928); Cathedrals of Broadway (1929); Cathedrals of Fifth Avenue (1931); Birthday Bouquet/ Flowers with Snake (1932); Family Portrait No. 2 (1933); costumes and set designed for opera Four Saints in Three Acts (1934); Cathedrals of Wall Street (1939); Cathedrals of Art (unfinished, 1942).
Having faded into obscurity following her death in 1944, the work of artist Florine Stettheimer was rediscovered in 1995, when New York City's Whitney Museum of American Art mounted a glittering exhibit of her paintings entitled "Manhattan Fantastica." Robert Hughes called the exhibit "an evocation of a period in the history of the American art world between the wars that now, at the sour close of the 20th century, seems remote and glittering, like something enclosed in a bell jar." Stettheimer's paintings, sometimes described as "rococo subversive" because of the subtle social satire hidden within them, provide a whimsical, witty view of the Americana that comprised her rarefied world, from Wall Street to high fashion to the art establishment which she ultimately rejected. "Letting other people have your paintings is like letting them wear your clothes," she once remarked when discussing the sale of her work.
Stettheimer was born in 1871, the fourth of five children and third daughter, in a prominent German-Jewish banking family, and raised in Rochester, New York. Although her father left home when Florine was small, the family was left financially secure and able to carry on a genteel lifestyle, which included private tutors for the children. While Walter and Stella , the eldest Stettheimer siblings, married, the three younger sisters—Carrie, Ettie , and Florine, or as they came to be known, the "Stetties"—formed what Parker Tyler refers to as an "independent virgin cult." Devoted to one another and to their mother Rosetta , the three women pursued "a life of supreme leisure, half centered upon artistic pleasures, half upon artistic work." Ettie, who received a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Freiburg, became a novelist, writing two books under the pseudonym Henry Waste. Carrie spent 25 years creating an intricate doll house containing a small-scale art gallery, complete with miniature replicas of modern works, all painted by the artists themselves. Florine pursued painting, beginning her studies at New York's Art Students League in the 1890s. Between 1906 and 1914, while living abroad with her mother and sisters, she continued her art education in Berlin, Stuttgart, and Munich.
With the onset of World War I, the Stettheimers returned to New York, where they established a legendary salon which attracted the best and brightest of the avant-garde to their elegant city apartment at Alwyn Court on 58th Street and their summer home, André Brook. The select coterie included artists Marcel Duchamp, Georgia O'Keeffe , and Gaston Lachaise, authors H.L. Mencken, Avery Hopwood, Sherwood Anderson, and Carl Van Vechten, and art critics Leo Stein, Paul Rosenfeld, and Henry McBride. Later, Marsden Hartley, Charles Demuth, Virgil
Thomson, Cecil Beaton, and Pavel Tchelitchew joined them.
Stettheimer had her first and only one-woman show at Knoedler's in 1916, for which she had the walls of the gallery draped with white muslin and crowned with a copy of her white-and-gold bed canopy. The exhibition, however, attracted neither critics nor buyers, and so humiliated the artist that she thereafter never had another solo show, and only occasionally agreed to exhibit in groups.
Following this debacle, Stettheimer also abandoned the traditional modes of drawing and design she had been taught for a more personal style of expression, which is described by Tyler as "light, gay, gently satiric and streamlined, yet full of people and details drawn with a miniaturish, rather oriental delicacy." Her Portrait of Myself, painted in 1923, reveals her developing style. "The artist sits for this self-portrait in a graceful curve on a red chaise longue fancifully upholstered and seemingly suspended," writes art historian Arlene Raven . "Gravity-less, she floats free in midair. The stylish, supremely sophisticated Stettheimer wears spike-heeled pumps and a filmy dress whose transparent sleeves suggest gossamer wings…. Stettheimer holds an assortment of exotic blooms…. Florine's persona basks in the day light streaming down from the sun she shines at the top right corner. This daylight energizes Stettheimer's flowers, held at pubic level, into full, wild blooms that make a striking diagonal spray into the left-hand bottom corner of the canvas."
Raven goes on to explain that flowers often appear in Stettheimer's works, providing a kind of symbolic link between art and everyday existence. Gigantic red, pink, and white blooms take center canvas in a later work, Family Portrait No. 2 (1933). "Here Stettheimer paints herself as both participant and observer, behind a draped curtain at the left in a dark work suit and red high heels holding a palette of primary hues," writes Raven. "Stettheimer's sister Ettie … sits to the right of the artist. Sister Carrie … stands to the far right. Mother Rosetta Walter Stettheimer, resplendent in lace on a throne-like chair, occupies the gravitational hot spot of the picture; her body and clothing touch the three gigantic blossoms that create the core and apex of the triangular composition and literally stand for the women portrayed."
Following the death of her mother in 1937, Florine moved to her own large "bachelor quarters" at the Beaux Arts studios on Bryant Park. "Here she climaxed her gift for creative decor," writes Tyler, "with great cellophane curtains and cellophane flowers, glittering chandeliers, white furniture self-designed and bearing her initials, a fantastic boudoir all of lace, and a canopied bed somewhere between medieval orthodoxy and a Victorian dressing table." In this setting, she worked and oversaw her cultural dinner parties, at which she frequently held "unveilings" of her paintings. Her later works reflect the fantasy and theatricality of her mature style. Among them are four pseudo-baroque "Cathedrals" paintings in which she both glorified and satirized her beloved New York City: Cathedrals of Broadway (1929), Cathedrals of Fifth Avenue (1931), Cathedrals of Wall Street (1939), and Cathedrals of Art (unfinished, 1942).
In Cathedrals of Fifth Avenue, Stettheimer parodied the rituals surrounding a fashionable wedding; "flags are waving, mounted police keep back the crowds, and photographers snap pictures of the newly married couple exiting on a red carpet from St. Patrick's cathedral," writes art historian Charlotte Streifer Rubinstein . "Meanwhile, a Rolls-Royce with a dollar sign on its grille (simultaneously the F. Stettheimer initials) is pulled up to the entrance, containing the Stettheimer sisters, charmed witnesses to the scene. The word 'Tiffany's' is blazing in precious jewels in the sky, along with the eagle and the American flag. Fathers of the church reach down from heaven to give their blessing to this quasi-commercial marriage à la mode."
Cathedrals of Wall Street (1939) is equally busy with satiric comment. A portrait of Franklin Delano Roosevelt adorns the New York Stock Exchange center canvas, while Eleanor Roosevelt and Fiorello La Guardia are accompanied by drum majorettes, marine musicians and a Salvation Army contingency. At the right of the canvas, overseeing the scene, is a statue of George Washington, flanked by two American flags. ("You couldn't get more American than this, unless you were Norman Rockwell," says Robert Hughes.)
Canvas was not Stettheimer's only creative outlet. In 1934, she designed the sets and costumes for the avant-garde opera Four Saints in Three Acts, written by Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein for an all-black cast. Fashioned from cellophane, crystals, lace, feathers and seashells, and utilizing a shrill color palette, her designs won more praise from the critics than did the opera itself. Stettheimer also wrote poetry, privately publishing her collection Crystal Flowers in 1949.
Throughout her career, the artist continued to rebuff offers of exhibits from art dealers and museums, and periodically announced in dramatic fashion that she was going to have her 100 or so paintings buried beside her in a mausoleum after her death. Fortunately, however, they were willed instead to sister Ettie, who saw to it that they found their way into museum collections. In 1946, two years after the artist's death from cancer, her friend Marcel Duchamp arranged an exhibition of her work at the Museum of Modern Art. It had little impact, writes Hughes. "Nothing could have been less in synch with the industrial-strength seriousness of post-war American painting than the froufrou, gilt and needling little ironies of Stettheimer's style." Hughes maintains that what preserved her work was homosexual taste, and cites her influence in the works of Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns, and in the illustrations of Edward Gorey. Given the success of her 1995 exhibition, however, Stettheimer may have found a new generation of admirers among the mainstream as well.
Bailey, Brooke. The Remarkable Lives of 100 Women Artists. Holbrook, MA: Bob Adams, 1994.
Harris, Ann Sutherland, and Linda Nochlin. Women Artists: 1550–1950. L.A. County Museum of Art: Knopf, 1976.
Hughes, Robert. "Camping Under Glass," in Time. September 18, 1995.
Raven, Arlene. "Manhattan Fantastica," in On the Issues. Fall 1885.
Rubinstein, Charlotte Streifer. American Women Artists. Boston, MA: G.K. Hall, 1982.
Tyler, Parker. "Florine Stettheimer," in Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Edited by Edward T. James. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.
Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts