The American artist Florine Stettheimer (1871–1944) became one of the few woman painters to gain wide-spread recognition in the period between World Wars I and II. Positioned at the epicenter of New York City's arts culture at the turn of the 20th century, she also wrote poetry and did theatrical set design.
Florine Stettheimer's style was unique and did not fit into any of the primary schools of her day. Often she painted friends or familiar figures in slightly surreal ways. One of her major projects was “Cathedrals of New York,” a series of large canvases containing satirical and allegorical references to the city she loved. Stettheimer's reputation declined after her death as abstract painting began to dominate the New York City art scene, but Pop Art pioneer Andy Warhol called her his favorite artist and her technique of placing subjects and subject matter in new contexts influenced Warhol and other 20th-century artists. Beginning with a major exhibition staged at the Whitney Museum in 1995, critics and scholars have reevaluated Stettheimer's work in the context of the Modernist movement.
Stettheimer was born in Rochester, New York, on August 29, 1871, to Joseph and Rosetta (Walter) Stettheimer. Through her father's job in the banking industry, the Stettheimer family was well off and she and her four siblings faced no financial constraints. Even after Joseph Stettheimer abandoned the family, he supported a lifestyle that allowed them to reside in several spacious apartments, including on New York's Upper West Side and near Carnegie Hall. High-society organizations remained closed to them, however, because they were Jewish.
After her brother Walter and oldest sister Stella left home and started their own families, Stettheimer and her remaining two siblings became inseparable. She, together with older sister Carrie and younger sister Henrietta (Ettie), styled themselves the “Stetties,” and she resolved to lead an independent and creative life. From 1892 to 1895, Stettheimer attended classes at New York City's Art Students' League. In 1907, when she was 26, Rosetta Stettheimer moved the family to Paris and took her daughters on excursions throughout the cultural capitals of Europe. Stettheimer was able to enjoy art classes at academies in Germany, and while in Paris she attended lectures by the philosopher Henri Bergson, whose ideas strongly influenced her work.
With the outbreak of World War I, the Stettheimer family returned to New York City and established a comfortable home on the city's Upper West Side. It was at this point that Florine began painting seriously, renting a studio in the newly constructed Beaux-Arts Building in Bryant Park. In 1915 she completed the first full-length nude selfportrait executed by a woman. A solo show at New York City's Knoedler gallery was mounted in 1916, but her artistic ideas were not yet fully developed and her work attracted little interest. Taking this disappointment to heart, Stettheimer would henceforth exhibit her work either in group exhibitions mounted by the Independent Society of Artists (of which she was a member), or, most often, at the private salons that she and her sisters hosted. These salons would be held at their home in the city or at the coastal mansions their mother rented when the family summered in New Jersey.
The Stettheimers' private salons were artistic gatherings that attracted prominent creative figures. More than clubs or parties, they were viewed as key taste-making events in the New York City art community, and the sisters held court, Ettie as the social catalyst and Carrie and Florine as creative elements. According to Bruce Kellner, in his book Carl Van Vechten and the Irreverent Decades, the sisters presented themselves as “an exotic if somewhat strange trio: Ettie in red wig, brocades, and diamonds; Carrie, who dressed never in the fashions of the day but in the elegance of a past era; Florine in white satin pants.” Stettheimer's paintings, by being exhibited during these gatherings, were seen and written about by people of cultural influence.
Regular attendees at Stettheimer's salons included photographer Alfred Stieglitz and his wife, painter Georgia O'Keeffe; writers Henry McBride and Carl Van Vechten; New York City artists Man Ray, Francis Picabia, and Charles Demuth; and French conceptual artist Marcel Duchamp, who became Stettheimer's close friend and exerted a distinct influence on her style. Quoting Van Vechten, Peter Schjeldahl noted in the New Yorker that Stettheimer was known to her friends and acquaintances as a “completely self-centered and dedicated person. She did not inspire love, or affection, or even warm friendship, but she did elicit interest, respect, admiration, and enthusiasm.”
By hosting her salons, Stettheimer melded her artistic life with her family, particularly her sisters Carrie and Hettie. Several of her artist friends created miniature works of art for a dollhouse-sized mansion Carrie Stettheimer was creating. Completed over a period of 25 years, this dollhouse featured unique furnishings and a decor highlighted by unique miniaturized paintings hanging on the walls. Known as the Stettheimer Dollhouse and capturing the culture of the so-called Gilded Age, Carrie's work remains on permanent display at the Museum of the City of New York.
In addition to her artistic circle of friends, Stettheimer was fascinated by New York City itself, appreciating its uniqueness even more in the wake of her travels in Europe. The cityscape was often the subject of her poetry, and in one poem posted on the city's Jewish Museum website, she described it as “at last grown young/with noise/and color/and light/and jazz.” In the late 1930s, she translated her love of the city into a visual work, “Cathedrals of New York.” A series of large canvases paying tribute to New York's Manhattan island, this undertaking captured Stettheimer's unique perspective on the urban lifestyle and culture of her time.
Stettheimer's poems were written on small slips of paper and, like her paintings, were intended for friends rather than for publication. Some of her other artistic activities were more public-minded, however. Stettheimer first became interested in ballet after encountering the pioneering choreography of Russian dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, and she composed and designed sets and costumes for an original ballet, Orphee of the Quat-z-Arts, although it was never produced. In 1934, she used cellophane, sequins, and feathers to create sets and costumes for the experimental Virgil Thomson opera Four Saints in Three Acts, which had an all-African-American cast.
Because she was a private person and disliked being photographed, little is known about Stettheimer's personal life. The large, ornately decorated apartment that served as her home for much of her life was located in New York's Bryant Park neighborhood. Her family's wealth ensured that she had no need to marry, and like her sisters, she remained single for her entire life. At her request, a diary in which she may have recorded her feelings and personal matters was destroyed by Ettie after her death; fortunately, Ettie ignored her request that many of her paintings also be destroyed.
One reason Stettheimer became less well known than her mostly male contemporaries was that she declined to market her works in any significant way. Although she was urged to do so by O'Keeffe, one of the leading American artists of her day, she refused to exhibit her work publicly. At the few galleries that did carry her work, Stettheimer put high prices on her paintings, preferring to circulate them primarily among friends. Her work also stood apart from that of other artists of the period, falling into none of the established “schools” of her day and bearing a satirical streak that set it apart from both conceptually modern art and traditional styles. Confused about her daughter's lack of success in her artistic endeavors, Rosetta Stettheimer even queried an art critic whether Florine had any true talent as a painter.
Stettheimer's fame, never broad, went into eclipse in her later years, but she was never completely forgotten. Succumbing to cancer, she passed away in New York City on May 11, 1944. Still unfinished at her death, her “Cathedrals of New York” have since been rediscovered and hang in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. These works were described by Peter Schjeldahl in the New Yorker as “symbol-packed phantasmagorias of Fifth Avenue, Broadway, Wall Street, and Art.” According to Schjeldahl, Stettheimer remains “an eccentric outlier to American modernism, and appreciations of her often run to the camp—it was likely in that spirit that Andy Warhol called her his favorite artist.”
Historical and critical interest in Stettheimer's work developed in the 1970s and 1980s, fueled by feminist academics, and a major retrospective of her work was staged at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York in 1995. Further exhibitions followed, including, in 2017, Florine Stettheimer: Painting Poetry, which was mounted at the Jewish Museum. Citing her contribution to the urban cohesive arts culture during the early 20th century, the museum heralded her as “an icon of Jazz Age New York.”
Bloemink, Barbara J., The Life and Art of Florine Stettheimer, Yale University Press, 1995.
Brown, Stephen, and Georgiana Uhlyarik, Florine Stettheimer: Painting Poetry, Yale University Press, 2017.
Kellner, Bruce, Carl Van Vechten and the Irreverent Decades, University of Oklahoma Press, 1968.
Nation, October 30, 1995, Arthur Coleman Danto, “Florine Stettheimer,” p. 514.
New York Times, May 19, 2017, Roberta Smith, “A Case for the Greatness of Florine Stettheimer,” p. C20.
New Yorker, May 15, 2017, Peter Schjeldahl, “The Roaring Stetties,” p. 90.
Tablet Magazine, June 22, 2017, Frances Brent, “Was Florine Stettheimer a Good Painter?”
The Jewish Museum, http://thejewishmuseum.org/exhibitions/florine-stettheimer-painting-poetry (December 1, 2018), “Florine Stettheimer: Painting Poetry.”
Jewish Women's Archive, https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/stettheimer-florine (December 1, 2018), Susan Laxton, “Florine Stettheimer.” □