Around 1915, Florine Stettheimer did something unthinkable for a wealthy, aging, single woman: she painted herself in the nude. The artist’s life-size “Nude Self Portrait” is only the second known nude self-portrait painting by a woman, and the first to be executed with such a subversive, direct gaze. The artist would have already been considered an old woman by the time she painted the piece at 45, which was the average lifespan of an American female born in the early 1870s as Stettheimer was. Yet she shows herself not only at the height of her beauty, but also at the height of her artistic powers. Surrounded by frilly white bedclothes and holding a vivid bouquet over her pubic area, Stettheimer’s nude is femmy and bold. Moreover, her bemused, knowing look challenges the female passivity seen in previous works by Titian, Manet, and other male-gaze greats. With this painting, Stettheimer asserts control of her sexuality, her image, and herself.
The artist’s groundbreaking nude self-portrait is just one of many revelations in Florine Stettheimer: A Biography by Barbara Bloemink, who has been an expert on the artist since the 1990s. Bloemink’s thorough, engaging book is the first comprehensive biography and full reading of Stettheimer’s paintings, and gives the artist the attention she has long deserved. The author explores the ways that Stettheimer’s life circumstances and social circle shaped her highly original art, which blended sly humor and private pleasures with socially and politically minded messages about the world at large. Bloemink also illuminates Stettheimer’s little-known but important work in interior, furniture, costume, and set design, and intersperses her own analysis with selections from the artist’s blunt, fanciful, and at times caustic diaries and poetry, giving us a sense of the artist’s own complicated voice. Stettheimer could be vain, elitist, and brusque, but was also hardworking, generous, and visionary.
Stettheimer was born to an affluent German Jewish family in New York in 1871. Her father left when she was still a child, and over the next 40 years, the artist, her mother, and two of her unmarried sisters traveled frequently to Europe, where Stettheimer studied Old Masters in museums and took lessons from local academic artists. The women lived in a world of extreme privilege, and their lavish lifestyle was unaffected even by the turmoil of the Great Depression. But despite her spacious apartments, fine clothes, and personal chauffeurs, Stettheimer bristled against her mother and sisters, who never took her work seriously. The artist wouldn’t feel completely free until she finally moved out of her mother’s home into her own place at age 65.
Though she hungered for professional recognition, Stettheimer also repeatedly refused solo exhibitions. Her first show — mounted shortly after her return to New York — wasn’t exactly a flop, but it didn’t garner the critical praise of her later works. Bloemink suggests that the artist refused future solo opportunities partly because she preferred her paintings to exist in a total environment of her own design, including custom furniture and lighting. And it seems that the best possible place for them, in that sense, was Stettheimer’s own home, where she arranged every detail of decor to her taste. (Stettheimer is known primarily as a painter, but some of her most important breakthroughs came from her work as a costume and set designer of ballet and opera, and she conceived of her own idiosyncratic domestic decor as a sort of gesamtkunstwerk.) She also set her paintings’ prices impossibly high: in 1929, she asked for $250,000 for each of her paintings, which would be the equivalent of nearly $4 million in today’s money.
Bloemink takes on Stettheimer’s complexities and contradictions with aplomb. As she traces Stettheimer’s unique creative and personal evolution, the author also offers a cultural study of the people and places that made up the artist’s world. For years, Stettheimer and her sisters held frequent salons that drew some of New York’s most brilliant creatives, including artists like Marcel Duchamp, Alfred Stieglitz, and Georgia O’Keeffe, art critic Henry McBride, and author Carl Van Vechten. Before that, Bloemink details Stettheimer’s lively artistic milieu in Paris, where she was dressed by the groundbreaking fashion designer Paul Poiret and inspired by the Ballet Russes dancer Vaslav Nijinsky. These connections and friendships make their way into Stettheimer’s poetry and her colorful canvases. Florine Stettheimer: A Biography is not only an essential history of Stettheimer’s life and work, but of the early modernist world around her.
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