If you find Florine Stettheimer’s compositions enigmatic—with their sylph-like figures, curtain swags and spidery lace, a George Washington here or Christmas tree there, towering bouquets created from palette knife swishes of flaming orange, buttery yellow, eggplant, and magenta—you’re not alone. Her own mother was said to have asked the art critic Henry McBride, “Do you really think Florine is a good painter?”
Florine Stettheimer: Painting Poetry at the Jewish Museum provides the welcome opportunity to rethink that question with a second look, allowing the chance, as she put it, “to see her light.” This is the first full-scale American exhibit of Stettheimer’s work since the Whitney Museum’s 1995 retrospective. Long overdue, it contains many of the well-known portraits of the Stettheimer family and their soirée guests like Marcel Duchamp or the artist Louis Bouché, as well as a few of the show stoppers like Asbury Park, studies for Orphée of the Quat-z-arts, a ballet she envisioned although it was never produced, and her famous designs for Gertrude Stein’s opera, Four Saints in Three Acts. The show doesn’t include the four Cathedrals paintings that represent the apogee of her career, but those works are at the Met Museum, and if you walk the 10 blocks south from the Jewish Museum to view them you can see her friend Rabbi Stephen S. Wise performing a wedding benediction alongside the Bishop of New York in The Cathedrals of Fifth Avenue.
Almost all of Stettheimer’s famous work today was produced after the family’s hasty return from Europe to the United States in 1914. Florine was already 43 years old and many of the ruptures in her life were in the past. The Stettheimers were patriots who, for complicated reasons, had become ex-patriots. They belonged to the close circle of wealthy German Jews interlinked across the United States through marriage, often two sisters marrying two brothers, producing double cousins as well as complex business dealings. Florine’s paternal grandfather, Max Stettheimer, became partners with his brother-in-law, Joseph Seligman, forming the company Seligman & Stettheimer. Her mother, Rosetta Walter Stettheimer, was born into a family with deep roots in the United States, going back to the colonial period. Of the 10 Walter siblings, the preponderance is buried with their parents at Salem Fields, the Brooklyn cemetery founded in the mid-19th century by Temple Emanu-el.
Florine was born in Rochester, the third daughter of five children whose happy childhood is depicted in the memory scene background of Portrait of My Mother and in her poem, “And Things I Loved,” in which she summed it up in her characteristic vernacular, “All loved and unforgettable thrills.” The family traveled often to Germany, and much of the children’s early education took place there, which seemed to fit Rosetta’s Bohemian leanings. Their father, Joseph Stettheimer, abandoned the family, an extraordinary scandal for the Jewish haut monde, though the circumstances and date of his departure, and the time and place of his death, have never been established because, along with the subject of money, it just wasn’t discussed.
The Stettheimers were Victorian but modern and very much in the vanguard. They smoked and wore trousers or low-cut gowns, sheer and shimmering fabrics, pearl chokers, turbans, and dangling earrings. Carrie’s 12-room dollhouse, which she worked on from 1916 until 1935, when their mother died, is filled with miniature artworks made by the family’s avant-garde friends such as Archipenko and Albert Gleizes. (It’s on permanent display at the Museum of the City of New York.) Florine studied at the Art Students League, read Bergson and Proust continually, book by book and over again. The youngest sister, Ettie, received a B.A. from Barnard, an M.A. from Columbia, a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Freiburg and wrote two novels under a pseudonym. Well-aware of the toxic force of anti-Semitism, they considered religion divisive, as was common in their milieu of assimilated, non-observant Jews—hence, the Christmas trees.
A lobster features prominently on a tablecloth laid over the grass in Florine’s Picnic at Bedford Hills and a menu from a dinner her sister Carrie planned in November 1929 describes “halibut and crabmeat in mayonnaise aspic with mixed salad” as a first course. The guests that night included Marie Sterner, Muriel Draper, Mark Tobey, Barney Lintott, Henry McBride, Charles Demuth, Carl Sprinchorn, and Paul Reimers. Sex was complicated. The youngest three sisters never married and lived together with their mother until she died in 1935. Ettie was known to have quipped, “We may be virgins, but we know the facts of life.” Many of their friends in the arts were gay, lesbian, or bisexual and Florine’s 5-and-a-half-foot-long painting of herself reposing on a bed while holding a bouquet is said to be the first female nude self-portrait. Painted in 1915 and coyly titled A Model, the composition is provocative (and, needless to say, breaks all norms for a Jewish woman at the beginning of the 20th century) but not as successful as the paintings that came just after, when Stettheimer chose to leave behind fin-de-siècle style and adopt her own joyous idiom. Although the art that followed is often spoken about as naïve, Stettheimer was worldly like Henri Rousseau, who came before. What she didn’t like was the sanctimony associated with high art and “Pompous/Bearded painters.”
Once unencumbered from the old techniques, Stettheimer’s work takes all kinds of fanciful liberties with dimensionality, scale, perspective, light and shadow, and her portraits become closer to a fusion of associations than likenesses, especially since the family members in her narratives never age. The private iconography in her paintings can require patience because there’s so much going on; the canvases are large (often 5 feet across) and the vibrant, jarring but brilliant color combinations can be overwhelming. Like the magazine covers and boldly colored bookplates of the period, her scenes are jammed with characters and props, rendering the essence of an adventure through stagecraft and body choreography rather than facial expression. The stories they tell are something akin to an amalgam of Proust, Fitzgerald, and Virginia Woolf compressed into the setting of a propertied German Jewish matriarchy with visitors from the world of art. Stettheimer said it succinctly:
Have at last a raison d’etre
Seen in color and design
It amuses me
To recreate them
To paint them.
“To recreate them/ To paint them” became her credo; it grounded her, granting her purpose and liberty to satisfy herself. As the painter of her family’s life (a privileged life, with German cooks, regal floral arrangements, and the gilt-fringed canopy in her bedroom apartment), she would record the complications, contradictions, and even fantasies that came along. Because she had a sense of humor, observation turned to satire, as is the case of Spring Sale at Bendel’s, in which she characterized the abandon of wealthy women shopping for a bargain as a frolicking Saturnalia.
Who was this woman? What was her personality? Along with her paintings, sketches, and designs, Stettheimer left behind papers and diaries going back to 1906. In her will, she requested that they be destroyed, but her sister Ettie made a compromise, excising them with scissors before depositing them with the literary archive at Yale. (Columbia University, on the other hand, has the largest collection of her paintings and decorative work, sketchbooks, correspondence, and scrapbooks.) A volume of her poetry, Crystal Flowers, was published posthumously, and excerpts appear as wall texts in the current exhibition as well as in the lustrous catalog by curators Stephen Brown and Georgiana Uhlyarik. The poems range from sing-songs to memories and description; they’re often hermetically confessional, and they give off a sense of a torrid interior life and a constant struggle against depression and humiliation.
Because of the deletions, we can only guess at her feelings about the disappearance of her father and the difficulties it presented. The original wound was compounded by the fact that the family had to live on their mother’s inheritance and their diminished means made them less attractive to appropriate suitors. It’s been speculated they chose to live in Europe because it was less expensive to maintain their lifestyle. The townhouse they lived in on 76th Street, when they first returned to the United States and before the move to Alwyn Court, belonged to their mother’s sister. The company of musicians, dancers, writers, and artists who became their friends must have provided a salutary alternative to the gossip-mill of Baers, Seligmans, Sternbergers, Goodharts, Bernheimers, and Guggenheims. In the introduction to Crystal Flowers, Ettie wrote in a Gertrude Stein-like circular locution, “Florine was one of those fortunate beings because they love the present. And she loved the present because she was always occupied with painting and she loved to paint.” You can see this working through in Self-Portrait with Palette, where the artist portrays herself sitting on a stone bench beside a scarlet-orange tree trunk in a divided and surreal garden. Behind her, a dreaming faun (much like the marvelous sculptural figure she made for Orphée at just about the same time) is transported in poetic ecstasy. The picture suggests that through art, she can attain access to the faun’s dream, his spirituality, and magic. That idea must have felt heaven-sent.
If Stettheimer was on the cusp of surrealism, she got there by a completely authentic route. She was never theoretical; rather, she proceeded with the absorbed free play a child brings to a dollhouse. In Picnic at Bedford Hills, for instance, she pairs off her sisters, freeing them from the gilded cage of their idealized childhood, Ettie with Elie Nadelman and Carrie with Duchamp. But as Duchamp raises the lid from the lobster pot, he reminds us that love burns. This is how Stettheimer puts it in her poem:
A human being
Saw my light
Or it happened
That he tried
To subdue it
Or it happened
He tried to extinguish it…
The poem goes on to describe her lifelong strategy of protective withdrawal. She says:
I am rid of
I turn on my light
In the sanctuary of her interior life, her life in art, and in the world navigated with her mother, sisters, and friends, she can turn on her light. It’s worth remembering how modern that image would have been in 1915. Birthday bouquets, potted palms, Ettie’s knitting, their mother’s game of Russian Bank, become icons in the perpetual story of their shared life. Another set of images from the public sphere—skyscrapers (she called them “sky towers”), fireworks, flags, the Statue of Liberty, gilded eagles, and golden renderings of George Washington built-up in relief on the picture plane—also find their way into the compositions, sometimes even taking over when Stettheimer places herself in the margin as a spectator. A feathery Lady Liberty floats on a star above her mother’s head in one of her masterpieces, Family Portrait II. She stands on a pedestal in New York/Liberty much like a winged angel in Cimabue. Stettheimer was optimistic about America, which in another poem she says, “seemed unaware of accepted things.” That is, it was a place where there was some space to be nonconforming and different (and part of that difference, one has to imagine, no matter how attenuated, was to be Jewish). Stettheimer worked diligently, building up the golden, almost sculptural bodies of her patriotic figures. Sometimes this work is talked about as camp but more certainly it reflects the innocent patriotism of our grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ generation, for whom the American forefathers stood in contradiction to the cast of characters in the Dreyfus Affair. When the Stettheimers left Bern at the outbreak of World War I, they saw the rush of immigrants coming into Switzerland. It was a horrifying preview of what was to come.
The final room of the show is dedicated to Four Saints and includes her wire figurines and miniature prop designs as well as archival footage from the 1934 performance at the Wadsworth Atheneum. Virgil Thompson’s radical score embedded with snippets of the American sound provided a bridge between Gertrude Stein and Stettheimer, two German Jewish American women born three years apart into the same milieu, with vastly different sensibilities and an overabundance of creativity. Before the war, Stettheimer had been inspired by productions of the Ballet Russe, and this was her opportunity to translate memory into her own aesthetic. She proceeded by using the materials she loved—cellophane, velvet, feathers, taffeta, and trimming made of paillettes, giving the saints halos that looked like sunhats and St. Teresa a pavilion that resembled the canopy in her own bedroom. The trees are part palm, part flower or translucent firecracker. It was play on a grand scale, demonstrating Stettheimer’s genius understanding of light and illumination, the underpinning of her mature paintings.
To read more of Frances Brent’s art reviews for Tablet magazine, click here.