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Florine Stettheimer: Feminist Provocateur

A feminist, Florine Stettheimer understood the provocative nature of basing her compositions on the rarely seen female point of view as well as the significance of her choice to create an overtly feminine style.

Florine Stettheimer, “Nude Self-Portrait” (ca. 1915), oil on canvas, 48 1/4 x 68 1/4 inches (courtesy Art Properties, Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, gift of the Estate of Ettie Stettheimer, 1967)

Florine Stettheimer didn’t talk much. During her family’s Salons, attended by New York’s avant-garde during the 1920s-early ’40s, she let her sisters lead the discussion. However, she was an acute and opinionated observer of the people and rapidly changing world around her. A feminist, Stettheimer understood the provocative nature of basing her compositions on the rarely seen female point of view as well as the significance of her choice to create an overtly feminine style. She was confident enough of her artistic mastery to repudiate it in order to develop a new, unique style of painting. Decades before other artists, Stettheimer depicted a number of challenging subjects that remain controversial and relevant today. Yet more than one hundred years after she painted the first ever full-length nude self-portrait by a professional woman artist, she continues too often to be described as an eccentric spinster, so disheartened by not selling her work at an early exhibition that she stopped exhibiting publicly and only showed her work to friends at her private salon.

This myth, repeated even in the 2015 catalog of the Whitney Museum’s collection handbook, is compounded by critics and curators who continue describing her paintings as “précieuses,” “decorative fantasies,” “naïf,” and “resembling outsider art.” These inaccurate assessments are mostly derived from a florid 1963 biography by the film critic Parker Tyler, who only met Stettheimer when she was elderly. The other sources tend to be fifty-year-old reminiscences of a few acquaintances only familiar with the artist’s public persona. Given the true significance of Stettheimer’s contribution to twentieth-century art, it is time to put these inaccurate descriptions to rest and instead look at her radical choices of style and subject matter and the contexts in which she worked.

Florine Stettheimer, “Nude Study, Standing with Hand to Shoulder” (1895), oil on canvas mounted on board, 30 1/8 x 18 1/8 inches (courtesy Art Properties, Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, gift of the Estate of Ettie Stettheimer, 1967)

One of Stettheimer’s closest friends, Marcel Duchamp, often called her a “bachelor,” playing on the French bachelier, or “new woman,” a term used to refer to early feminists. As her friend Carl Van Vechten observed, Stettheimer was 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.” In addition, Stettheimer never painted “fantasies” — her works are all based on factual, thoroughly researched details — and her style and subject matter were carefully chosen. She prophetically chose to portray unique subjects, including race, sexual orientation, gender, and religion, in an equitable and open fashion. As the art critic Henry McBride wrote, she was “willful” and “unconcerned with precedent. … Miss Stettheimer knew what she was doing in her work in art.”

Stettheimer grew up in New York City and Europe in a wealthy, matriarchal family of unusually strong, highly educated and accomplished women. At a young age she gained academic art training as extensive as that of any of her male contemporaries. In the 1890s, she attended the Art Students League in New York, considered radical because of its liberal policies toward women. While there, Stettheimer painted a number of female nudes that reveal her mastery in realistically portraying the human body. With her mother and two sisters, she spent the early 1900s in Europe, living in Germany and traveling often to France, Italy, London and Spain, frequenting art museums, salons, galleries, and artists’ studios. (Among the artists about whose work Stettheimer commented in her diaries were Cézanne, Manet, Matisse, and Morisot.)

With the outbreak of the First World War, the Stettheimers found themselves stranded in Switzerland, and in 1914 they boarded a ship to the United States. Exhilarated by the progressively modern character of New York City, Stettheimer decided to abandon her European academic training and resolved to create a uniquely American style that reflected the new century. She had “become free,” in her words; she had “thrown off old shackles,” and was committed to representing life as she “sees and feels it.”

Florine Stettheimer, “Portrait of Carl Van Vechten” (1922), oil on canvas, 91 x 80 cm (courtesy Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Carl Van Vechten Papers)

Her decision to document her new American life necessitated a style that incorporated recognizable figuration and specific locations. In designing the format for her new style, Stettheimer turned for inspiration to the creative freedom, rich materials and patterns, and strong female perspectives that characterized Sergei Diaghilev’s innovative Ballets Russes productions, such as L’Après-midi d’un faune with Vaslav Nijinsky, which she attended in 1912. Except for her portraits, Stettheimer’s paintings are composed as sensorial stage settings with animated movement, thick, tactile paint, pure colors reflecting moods and temperatures, and implications of noise and music. Her figures appear to move dynamically like dancers across the space, their feet often shaped as though en pointe. In some works musicians play instruments, horns blare, and hot sun blazes down. Her elaborate compositions are filled with organic curves, rococo furnishings, and floral displays, all intended to look “feminine.”

Stettheimer was acutely aware of the subversive feminism of her “feminine” point of view. In 1915 she completed, Self-Portrait, the first known example of a woman painting herself entirely nude. (Paula Modersohn-Becker is often credited as the first woman to paint a nude self-portrait; however, the two works she painted in 1906 show her body naked only to the waist.)

As erotic subjects for male viewers’ pleasure, nude figures were traditionally painted with their eyes averted or closed. Stettheimer, however, based her self-portrait on two nudes that were considered shocking and “morally depraved” in their time due to their female subjects’ confrontational gaze. In 1912 Stettheimer saw Francisco Goya’s 1800 Nude Maja at the Prado Museum, declaring it “very piquant looking.” As with the Maja, she positioned herself resting on her right hip, ensuring that her bodily representation of sexuality — her bright-red pubic hair — is optimally presented to the viewer.

The left-to-right positioning of Stettheimer’s body, with ankles crossed, mirrors the positioning of the main subject in Manet’s controversial Olympia, which scandalized the 1865 Paris Salon. The painting was considered shocking not only because Olympia meets the viewer’s gaze, but also because she wears a gold bracelet and her maid holds a bouquet of flowers from an admirer. These details reveal that the sitter is a prostitute. Stettheimer’s subtle changes radically alter the sitter from a prostitute to an independent, modern woman: Rather than receiving a bouquet from an implied admirer, she pleases herself by holding her own flowers.

Lazily resting her head at a slight angle against her bent hand, Stettheimer similarly gazes directly at the viewer. Her expression, however, is not confrontational but knowing, even slightly mocking — an acknowledgment that the portrait is not predicated on the voyeuristic gaze of her male viewers, but is the subject of a mature woman’s experience of her own body and ultimately an exaltation of femaleness.

Stettheimer was already forty-five years old when she completed Self-Portrait, an age when women were (and still are) considered well past their prime of youthful beauty. She was proud of her fashionably slim body with small breasts and shapely legs. At the time, women’s dresses were only beginning to rise above the ankle. The idea that a woman, particularly a wealthy, unmarried, middle-aged one, would paint herself nude was unthinkable.

soiree-from-yale
Florine Stettheimer, “Soireé” (ca 1917), oil on canvas, 81 x 85 cm (courtesy Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Florine and Ettie Stettheimer Papers)

Stettheimer never publicly exhibited Self-Portrait. Both Parker Tyler and the artist’s sister Ettie referred to it with the title, “A Nude,” rather than identifying it as a self-portrait. Given the scandalous nature of the work, it is conceivable that those around her were blind to the resemblance. The artist must also have understood the controversy that acknowledging the work as a self-portrait would have caused; she included its miniature as a private amusement within another work, Soirée (1917-19). Soirée’s setting is one of the Stettheimers’ salons, attended by many members of New York’s avant-garde. By the time she painted Soirée, Stettheimer had achieved her fully mature style of “conversation pieces” organized like theatrical sets. The occasion she portrays is the viewing of the artist’s new painting, shown from the back on an easel. Various artists, playwrights, collectors, poets, and gallerists are arranged around the room; however, only the artists Gaston Lachaise and Albert Gleizes intently study the new work. All of the other guests converse or passively look on.

Stettheimer’s Self-Portrait is present against the back wall of the scene. It is impossible to ignore, given its size and prominent placement, yet only one guest looks at the naked image of the artist: Juliette Gleizes, on the red sofa with her hand raised and her mouth agape, recognizes the resemblance between the painting’s subject and her hostess. Seated next to Gleizes is Stettheimer, herself, her head at the same angle, resting on her bent arm, as in her self-portrait. As the artist sits looking out at the viewer, her half-amused expression challenges us to appreciate the irony of the self-portrait and the blindness of those around her.

Initially when she returned to New York, Stettheimer focused on images of her family and friends. However, as early as 1918 she began painting areas of the city and amusements that interested her. During her twenties and thirties, she engaged in flirtations and romantic relationships, and her paintings, diaries, and poems reveal her enduring admiration for the male anatomy. However, they also demonstrate that from early in her life she adamantly opposed the idea of marriage, believing like many feminists of her time that it constricted women’s freedom and interfered with creativity. She caustically wrote:

Little Miss Mouse

Wanted her own house

So she married Mr. Mole

And got only a hole.

Crystal Flowers, 1949

Florine Stettheimer, “Spring Sale at Bendel’s” (1921), oil on canvas, 50 x 40 inches (courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art, gift of Miss Ettie Stettheimer)

Among her distinctive subjects, Stettheimer painted women’s personae in highly unusual, female-oriented contexts normally never depicted as subject matter for works of art. In her monumental 1921 work Spring Sale at Bendel’s, for example, she humorously captured wealthy women of varying girths trying on clothing in an expensive department store. Despite their upper-class stature, a number of them throw themselves across a table, grabbing scarves from one another like hogs at feeding time. Weary salespeople look on while women of all ages twirl and bend, contorting their bodies as they decide whether their outfits are flattering. The only men in the painting are put-upon assistants and the harried store manager.

Similarly, in Natatorium Undine, Stettheimer portrays another feminine space, an elegant women-only swimming pool. A reclining nude woman with luminous skin floats on the water like Venus on a half shell, surrounded by others who ride on floats or swim with delight and abandon. On the right, a group of women dance around a handsome male exercise instructor whom, in a sexual reversal, they admire for his physical appearance. At the far edge of the pool, a smoking woman swathed in towels lies contentedly while a male staff member massages her plump body.

Florine Stettheimer, “Natatorium Undine” (1927), oil and encaustic on canvas, 50 1/2 x 60 inches (courtesy the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, New York, gift of Ettie Stettheimer)

Stettheimer also emphasized women over men in her extraordinary painting of African-Americans, Asbury Park South. The dignified dowager with the egret-feathered hat, the maid holding the hand of the little girl, the three lovely flappers with fringed gowns accentuating their long legs all fill the foreground of the painting where the only male figure is the servant pushing the elegant cart on the right. As opposed to portrayals of African-Americans by her white contemporaries ­— mostly stereotyped caricatures that appeared in popular journals as cartoons or as advertisements for musical entertainment — all of the figures in Stettheimer’s Asbury Park South painting are fully realized people, with distinct personalities. The artist’s close, accurate observation is evidenced by the diversity of the figures’ skin colors, which range from light tan to the deepest brown.

The painting’s title, Asbury Park South, refers to the restricted African-American area of the beach. The sun-saturated yellow of the boardwalk and sandy beach behind set the stage upon which the figures prance, preen, stretch, and bend into momentary poses, creating a feeling of temporality. The entire atmosphere is jubilant and celebratory.

Florine Stettheimer, “Asbury Park South” (1920), oil on canvas, 50 x 60 1/8 inches (collection of Halley k. Harrisburg and Michael Rosenfeld, New York)

Stettheimer became interested in the Harlem Renaissance through Van Vechten, who was a major patron of African-American culture. His parties were famous for their racial mix, and were attended by Stettheimer, Paul Robeson, Bessie Smith, Helena Rubinstein, and W. Somerset Maugham, among others. In turn, Stettheimer hosted a cocktail party in her Bryant Park studio for the black stars of the celebrated opera Four Saints in Three Acts, for which she received international fame for her costumes and sets.

Stettheimer believed Asbury Park South was one of her best works, and in 1922, through the auspices of Albert Gleizes, the work was included in the Paris Salon d’Automne. Sixteen years later, Tom Mabry, the Museum of Modern Art’s curator, included Asbury Park South in the first European exhibition of American painting, held in Paris’ Jeu de Paume in 1938.

Stettheimer’s politically charged subjects also included religion and homosexuality. In 1919 she painted Lake Placid, set at the lake adjoining Camp Calumet, the summer home her cousin, Edwin Seligman. At the time, Lake Placid was a popular retreat with fashionable clubs and luxury “camps” known for their bigotry against Jews and Catholics. Seligman was a highly respected Columbia University economics professor who bought his property at Lake Placid early in 1905. However, as a Jew he was not allowed membership in the prestigious Lake Placid Club, nor could he or any of his family go to the popular Morley’s Hotel due to patrons’ aversion to “association with Hebrews.” The various figures in the painting include many of the Stettheimers’ New York friends: gallerist Marie Sterner; artist Maurice Sterne; Seligman and his daughter; Rabbi Stephen Wise; José Luis de Medina y Carvajal, marqués de Buenavista, the Catholic secretary of the Peruvian embassy; Elizabeth Duncan, the dancer and avowed atheist; and the four Stettheimers. All are cavorting, swimming, boating, or sunbathing at the lake; however, none of them would have been admitted into either the Lake Placid Club or Morley’s Hotel.

Florine Stettheimer, “Lake Placid” (1919), oil on canvas, 40 1/8 x 50 1/8 inches, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, gift of Miss Ettie Stettheimer (© Museum of Fine Arts Boston)

The Stettheimers’ salons included a remarkable mixture of gay, lesbian, and bisexual members, whom the artist included in virtually all her compositions, beginning as early as 1920 and continuing until the end of her career. Although gay artists, including Charles Demuth and Marsden Hartley, also painted gay subjects, few heterosexual artists did so with Stettheimer’s affection, openness, and humor. Van Vechten had a tendency to gain and lose weight, for example, so she included both a slim and a pudgy version of him in a portrait. He is shown surrounded by books he has written, a typewriter with the keys spelling out the artist’s name, a mask of his actress “wife,” and the accoutrements of his interests, theater and cooking. Similarly, in her painting of her “confrere,” as she called Duchamp, she presented him in a gray suit on one side of the canvas and included a second, rose-colored portrait of his feminine alter ego Rrose Sélavy on the other. Around both are images of his Readymades.

During her lifetime numerous critics hailed Stettheimer as one of the few important women painters in the history of art. She was included in the first Whitney Biennial (and several subsequent ones), the 1922 Salon d’Automne, various Carnegie Internationals, and the opening and many following exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art. Stettheimer was one of only two women artists included in the first American art exhibition in Europe. She turned down requests for solo shows from most of New York’s leading gallerists, including Alfred Stieglitz, who begged her to join the stable of artists he represented. (In 1929 Georgia O’Keeffe wrote to Stettheimer, “I wish you would become ordinary like the rest of us and show your paintings this year!”) In a unique tribute, two years after her death McBride and Duchamp organized a Stettheimer retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art that traveled to Chicago and San Francisco.

After Stettheimer’s death, her sister Ettie cut out major portions of the artist’s diaries, so we know little about her thoughts beyond what we can surmise from her paintings and poetry. We can only speculate and marvel at the prescience of this remarkable artist in exploring such provocative topics as gender, race, religion, and sexuality in such an open and celebratory manner. From the moment she returned to New York at the outset of the First World War, Stettheimer’s only interest was in documenting what was new. As an ambitious feminist taking her place among New York’s avant-garde, she consciously developed an innovative, transgressive, uniquely feminine style of painting. After her death in 1944, she developed a cult following of artists, including Andy Warhol who claimed she was “his favorite artist.” For the last half-century, artists on both sides of the Atlantic claim her work has been a direct influence. Not only was Stettheimer one of modern art’s earliest avowed feminists, in terms of her aesthetic, feminine perspective and boldness, but she was also among the most innovative and daring artists of her time. It’s time to recognize Florine Stettheimer as one of the most significant artists of the 20th century, whose work remains as relevant today as it was a century ago.

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