Florine Stettheimer, “A Model (Nude Self-Portrait)” (1915), oil on canvas. 48 1/4 x 68 1/4 inches, Art Properties, Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library, Columbia University in the City of New York. Gift of the Estate of Ettie Stettheimer, 1967 (all images courtesy Jewish Museum, New York)

Along with Marsden Hartley, Georgia O’Keeffe, Archibald Motley, Arshile Gorky, and Horace Pippin, Florine Stettheimer is one of the great American painters in the first half of the 20th century. There are lots of reasons why she has not been accorded the same status as Hartley and O’Keeffe, and more than a few have to do with deeply ingrained prejudices regarding money and class. Stettheimer was born into a wealthy, financially secure Jewish family, and she never had to work. For some people, her wealth means that she did not suffer enough to be an artist, and therefore her work does not have enough gravity. Others, who are delighted by her extravagance and whimsy, often fail to see further than that.  For everyone else, Florine Stettheimer: Painting Poetry at the Jewish Museum (May 5 – September 24, 2017), the first major exhibition in more than twenty years devoted to this wonderful, still underknown artist, should open some eyes.

Stettheimer was a witty, sharp-eyed painter who, for all of her attention to her social surroundings and the people in them, was not afraid to inject her subjects with large doses of fantasy and whimsy. Academically trained in Germany (Stuttgart, Berlin, and Munich), her early drawings are far more than skillful studies. When she was fifteen and living with her family in New York, she went to the Art Students League. Traveling regularly between New York City and Europe, she absorbed a lot of influences and looked at, as well as thought about, a lot of art. Her influences include Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, and Symbolism, which she absorbed and transformed into something unique in American painting. There was no one else like her at the time.

Florine Stettheimer, “Self-Portrait with Palette (Painter and Faun)” (undated), oil on canvas. 60 x 71 7/8 inches, Art Properties, Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library, Columbia University in the City of New York. Gift of the Estate of Ettie Stettheimer, 1967

As told by this exhibition, organized by Stephen Brown and Georgiana Uhlyarik  Stettheimer begins putting everything together after she attends a production of L’Aprés-Midi d’un Faune by the Ballets Russe in Paris, June 1912. Inspired by this eye-opening experience, Stettheimer began working out plans for her own ballet based on the story of Orpheus. She made drawings, paintings, and maquettes, many of which are displayed in one area of exhibition. Seeing this particular ballet — as Brown and Uhlyarik conclude, and I think they are absolutely right — seems to have changed everything for Stettheimer. Within a few years, she began making her signature paintings.

The Orpheus project also prepared her for designing the sets for the opera, Four Saints in Three Acts (1928), with a libretto by Gertrude Stein, music by Virgil Thompson, and — more importantly — an all-black cast. One of the materials she used was cellophane. Near a vitrine containing ephemera from the opera, you can watch a short film by Julien Levy of a performance of one of its scenes. I watched it twice. Despite the graininess of the film, you are transported, and can almost forget what the world outside that theater was actually like for those on stage, first in Hartford, CT, in 1934, and shortly afterward on Broadway, where it had a long and successful run. Aesthetically and socially, the staging of Four Saints in Three Acts was a radical act, which passed itself off as fantasy.

Florine Stettheimer, “Procession: Orpheus…”. Orphée of the Quat-z-arts (1912), oil, fabric, and beads on canvas, 17 1/8 x 35 1/8 inches. Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Miss Ettie Stettheimer, 1947 (image provided by The Museum of Modern Art / SCALA / Art Resource, New York)

Here is what changed in Stettheimer’s work around 1914. She shed all traces of naturalism and realism and developed a faux naïf style in which small, often elongated figures occupy a stage-like setting. In contrast to her peers, many of whom did not have the rigorous education she had, she set about to unlearn her academic training. This change was accompanied by her increasing use of hothouse colors. She transferred the artifice and dramatic bodily distortions of ballet to her everyday, privileged surroundings, which included famed salons and soirees held at the family manse on the corner of 58th Street and Seventh Avenue. Among the guests were Viola and Elie Nadelman, Georgia Keeffe, Alfred Steiglitz, Carl van Vechten, Francis Picabia, and Marcel Duchamp. In reinventing herself, Stettheimer goes her own way with no regard to what was the right thing to do: she became an uncategorizable narrative painter. She did not try to fit in and, because of that, she enlarged  our understanding of what was possible in American painting.

Four Saints in Three Acts, performance photograph by White Studio, New York, 1934, Florine and Ettie Stettheimer Papers, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven

When you are a fan like I am, two things can happen: Your admiration grows or you are disappointed. I certainly could go on and on about all the wild and wonderful things she does in her paintings, her use of color so unlike anything other American painters were doing at the time; her satirical eye and gift for telling caricature, but that would not be enough, especially now, after seeing this exhibition. I love how smart and funny she can be, as well as critical and tough, which is to say that Stettheimer is a nuanced artist. In “Studio Party (Soirée)” (1917-1919), which  depicts a gathering at her family house to celebrate her  full-length “Nude Self-Portrait” (1915), Stettheimer shows her select audience’s response to one of her groundbreaking paintings. Some scholars believe this to be the first nude self-portrait by a woman artist.

Stettheimer’s “Nude Self Portrait,” which was inspired by Edouard Manet’s “Olympia” (1862), is in the upper right corner of “Studio Party (Soirée).” A figure in a stiff-backed chair, with hands folded primly in her lap, is seated directly in front of the self-portrait: her head discreetly obscuring the nude’s crotch. Nearly everyone in the room is looking away from the painting. In the lower left corner, two men stand side by side, staring with exaggerated thoughtfulness at a painting on an easel, whose image we cannot see. Stettheimer’s “Nude Self Portrait” is a presiding spirit ignored by nearly everyone in the room. She is also the only figure in the room with a smile. Whimsy, I would say, is one way Stettheimer protected herself.

Florine Stettheimer, “Asbury Park South” (1920), oil on canvas, 50 x 60 inches (127 × 152.4 cm). Collection of Halley K. Harrisburg and Michael Rosenfeld, New York

The painting that got me was “Asbury Park South” (1920), which is about an Enrico Caruso recital on July 4, 1920, at Asbury Park. We have a slightly elevated view of the boardwalk, pier, beach, and ocean, all bathed in different hues of yellow. Although Asbury Park was a segregated beach, with designated areas for blacks and whites, Stettheimer shows us an integrated social milieu of families, people dressed to the nines and bathers frolicking in the calm water. The audience in the grandstand viewing this scene is also a mixture of blacks and whites. It is a fantasy and it is whimsical and it is something more. It made me wonder: when was the first time an American painter depicted an integrated social gathering? Stettheimer never announces her subversiveness, because she is not interested in self-glory. As she wrote in one of her wonderful poems, “Art is spelled with a capital A…”

Florine Stettheimer: Painting Poetry continues at the Jewish Museum (1109 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through September 24.

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the chapbook, Egyptian...