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Review: “Florine Stettheimer: Painting Poetry”

By Anne Doran
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This joyous retrospective of the work of Florine Stettheimer—Jazz Age poet, set designer, saloniste extraordinaire, painter of modern life—opens with Family Portrait II (1933), in which Stettheimer portrays herself, her two sisters and her mother in an environment that is part gracious interior, part rooftop view of New York. Three gigantic flowers, one for each daughter, overwhelm the composition: Their stems are tightly entangled in a symbolic evocation of unbreakable family ties. Even so, the artist stands apart: Dressed in a black pantsuit, she occupies a place both within and without the sanctuary of her family. This reference to Stettheimer’s outsider status reflected her place in New York society, where, in spite of her wealth, she was marginalized for being both Jewish and female. Like many interlopers, Stettheimer built a world of her own, populating it with some of the most interesting figures of her day.

Florine Stettheimer, Portrait of Marcel Duchamp, 1923-1926
Photograph: David Stansbury, Michele and Donald D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts, Springfield, Massachusetts

Stettheimer (1871–1944) was the fourth of five children abandoned by their father early on. While the eldest siblings married, the three youngest sisters—Ettie, Florine and Carrie—remained single, living with their mother, first in Europe and then in New York City. There the sisters created a gathering place for the avant-garde, including Marcel Duchamp and Edward Steichen, both of whom both made their way into Stettheimer’s paintings.

Florine Stettheimer, Beauty Contest: To the Memory of P.T. Barnum, 1924
Photograph: Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut

The show begins with early artistic experiments largely influenced by Postimpressionism. Eventually, Stettheimer hit upon a faux-naive style that combined European Symbolism with the verve of 1920s fashion illustration. The thread uniting these influences is the artist’s interest in theater, and the exhibition includes Stettheimer’s set designs—among them, her stage and costume creations for Virgil Thomson’s 1934 production, Four Saints in Three Acts.

Florine Stettheimer, Self-Portrait with Palette (Painter and Faun), undated,
Photograph: Art Properties, Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library, Columbia University

A theatrical bent likewise informs Stettheimer’s portraits, which depict her subjects surrounded by props. Duchamp cranks a Rube Goldberg–like machine, from which Duchamp’s feminine alter ego Rrose Selavy appears; the great art critic Henry McBride poses as the umpire of a tennis match.

Florine Stettheimer, Spring Sale at Bendel’s, 1921
Photograph: Philadelphia Museum of Art

Stettheimer’s true masterpieces, however, were her witty renderings of American life, such as Spring Sale at Bendel’s (1921), with its scrum of bargain hunters, and Asbury Park South (1920), which imagines the otherwise segregated Jersey Shore filled with frolicking African-Americans. Situated near the end of the show, Beauty Contest: To the Memory of P.T. Barnum (1924) depicts the competition being judged by Barnum himself.

Florine Stettheimer, A Model (Nude Self-Portrait), 1915
Photograph: Art Properties, Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library, Columbia University

In her diary, Stettheimer wrote: “[B]eauty contests are a B.L.O.T. on American something—I believe life—or civilization.” In her jaundiced view of hucksterism and cheap spectacle, she was not only an artist for her own time but for our own political moment

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