Life and Work of Florine Stettheimer, Painter of the Jazz Age

Photograph of Florine Stettheimer, artist unknown. 1910.
Photograph of Florine Stettheimer, artist unknown. 1910.

Archives of American Art / Public Domain

Florine Stettheimer (August 19, 1871–May 11, 1944) was an American painter and poet whose brushy, colorful canvases depicted the social milieux of New York in the Jazz Age. During her lifetime, Stettheimer chose to keep her distance from the mainstream art world and only shared her work selectively. As a result, her legacy as a truly original American Folk-Modernist, while still modest, is now slowly building, decades after her death.

Fast Facts: Florine Stettheimer

  • Known For: Jazz Age artist with an avant-garde style
  • Born: August 19, 1871 in Rochester, New York
  • Died: May 11, 1944 in New York City, New York
  • Education: Art Students League of New York
  • Selected Work: Cathedrals series, "Family Portrait II," "Asbury Park"

Early Life

Florine Stettheimer was born in 1871 in Rochester, New York, the fourth of five children. Throughout her life, she had a close relationship with the two siblings closest to her in age—her older sister Carrie and her younger sister Ettie—as none of the sisters ever married.

Both of Stettheimer’s parents were descendants of successful banking families. When her father Joseph left the family when the girls were children, they lived off their mother's, Rosetta Walter Stettheimer, sizable inheritance. In later life, Stettheimer’s independent wealth may have accounted for some of her reluctance to show her work publicly, as she was not dependent on the art market to support herself. This, in turn, may have affected the content of her work, as she was not forced to abide by the whims of cultural tastes and could more or less paint as she pleased.

Florine Stettheimer, Spring Sale at Bendel's (1921), oil on canvas, Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Florine Stettheimer, Spring Sale at Bendel's (1921), oil on canvas, Philadelphia Museum of Art. Public Domain

Personality and Persona

Stettheimer spent her early years of schooling in Germany, but returned to New York City often to take classes at the Art Students League. She moved back to New York in 1914 before the start of World War I and took a studio near Bryant Park in the Beaux-Arts building. She became close friends with many of the movers and shakers in the art world at the time, including the father of Dada (and creator of R. Mutt’s Fountain), Marcel Duchamp, who taught French to the Stettheimer sisters.

The company the Stettheimer sisters kept was highly creative. Many of the men and women who frequented Alwyn Court (the Stettheimer home on 58th Street and 7th Avenue) were artists and members of the avant-garde. Frequent visitors included Romaine Brooks, Marsden Hartley, Georgia O’Keefe, and Carl Van Vechten.

Stettheimer’s politics and attitudes were distinctly liberal. She attended an early feminist conference in France when she was in her twenties, did not cringe at risqué depictions of sexuality on stage, and was an ardent supporter of Al Smith, who favored a woman’s right to vote. She was also an outspoken supporter of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, making it the centerpiece of her famous Cathedrals of Wall Street (1939), now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She collected George Washington memorabilia and called him the “only man I collect.” Despite the time she spent in Europe, Stettheimer’s love of her home country is clear in the scenes of jubilation she choose to represent under its flag.

Work

Stettheimer’s best known works are of social scenes or portraits interspersed with symbolic references to their subjects’ lives and milieux, often including some reference to her own identity as a painter.

Florine Stettheimer, The Cathedrals of Broadway, 1929, Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Florine Stettheimer, The Cathedrals of Broadway, 1929, Metropolitan Museum of Art. Public Domain / CC01.0 

From a young age, the multi-sensory experience of attending the theater appealed to Stettheimer. Though her initial attempts at set design failed (she approached the dancer Vaslav Nijinsky with an idea of bringing the myth of Orpheus to the stage with her as set designer, only to be rejected), there is an undeniable theatricality to her canvases. Their visually-optimized but inaccurate perspective allows for the entire scene to be viewed from one point of view, and their elaborate framing devices give off the appearance of a proscenium or other elements of a theater or stage. Later in her life, Stettheimer did design the sets and costumes for Four Saints in Three Acts, an opera whose libretto was written by famed modernist Gertrude Stein.

Art Career

In 1916, Stettheimer was given a solo show at the well-known M. Knoedler & Co. Gallery, but the show was not well received. It was the first and last solo show of her work in her lifetime. Stettheimer opted instead for throwing “birthday parties” for each new painting––essentially a party thrown in her home whose main event was the unveiling of a new work. The social occasion model of exhibiting was not a far cry from the salons for which the Stettheimer women were known during the interwar years.

Stettheimer was known as a wit with a sharp tongue, uninhibited when it came to social critique. Her painting, as well as her poetry, are clear evidence of this assessment, such as the commentary on the art market which is the driving force of this poem:

Art is Spelled with a Capital A
And capital also backs it
Ignorance also makes it sway
The chief thing is to make it pay
In a quite dizzying way
Hurrah–hurrah–

Stettheimer was very deliberate about her image as an artist, often refusing to be photographed by the many significant photographers she counted among her friends (including Cecil Beaton) and instead opting to be represented by her painted self. Appearing in the straight cuts of clothing fashionable in the 1920s, the painted version of Florine wore red high heels and never seemed to age past forty, despite the fact that the artist died in her early 70s. While most often she would directly insert her image, palette in hand, into a scene, in Soirée (c. 1917), she includes a nude self-portrait not widely exhibited (presumably because of its salacious content).

Later Life and Death

Florine Stettheimer died in 1944, two weeks before the Museum of Modern Art exhibited what she called her “masterpiece,” Family Portrait II (1939), a canvas which returned to her favorite subjects: her sisters, her mother, and her beloved New York City. Two years after her death, her great friend Marcel Duchamp helped organize a retrospective of her work at the same museum.

Sources

  • Bloemink, Barbara. "Imagine The Fun Florine Stettheimer Would Have With Donald Trump: The Artist As Feminist, Democrat, And Chronicler Of Her Time". Artnews, 2018, http://www.artnews.com/2017/07/06/imagine-the-fun-florine-stettheimer-would-have-with-donald-trump-the-artist-as-feminist-democrat-and-chronicler-of-her-time/.
  • Brown, Stephen, and Georgiana Uhlyarik. Florine Stettheimer: Painting Poetry. Yale University Press, 2017.
  • Gotthardt, Alexxa. "The Flamboyant Feminism Of Cult Artist Florine Stettheimer". Artsy, 2018, https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-flamboyant-feminism-cult-artist-florine-stettheimer.
  • Smith, Roberta. "A Case For The Greatness Of Florine Stettheimer". nytimes.com, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/18/arts/design/a-case-for-the-greatness-of-florine-stettheimer.html.