Florine Stettheimer (1871-1944) was an American painter, best known for capturing the artistic milieu of Jazz Age New York City.
She was the fourth of five children born to a wealthy German-Jewish family. After their father left, their mother, Rosetta, took the children on long jaunts through Europe, though always returning to New York. Florine studied at the Art Institute in New York in the 1890s and later studied painting in Paris, Munich and elsewhere. From roots in academic painting, she went on to develop her own style.
The Stettheimers returned permanently to New York after WWI broke out. Beginning in 1915, and for the next twenty years, Florine, with her two unmarried sisters, Ettie and Carrie, and their mother began hosting a weekly salon. Those who attended were the Jazz Age modernists involved in the arts in New York— Americans and ex-pat “literati.” The guest list was long, including artists Marcel Duchamp, Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O’Keeffe, Marguerite and William Zorach others; art critics like Henry McBride who supported the modernists; photographer and patron Carl Van Vechten. These were just a few among the great cast of well-known characters in the New York art world.
In 1916, Stettheimer had an exhibition at the prominent Knoedler Gallery in New York. (Her nude self-portrait, one of the first to be painted by a woman artist, was not included.)
Florine Stettheimer, Nude Self-Portrait, 1915, oil on canvas, 122 x 173 cm, Colombia University, New York, NY, USA.
Not a single painting sold, and thereafter she showed her paintings privately. Stettheimer often created elaborate settings to introduce her new works at the weekly salons. She also read her original poems. Cushioned by family resources, Stettheimer did not need to sell her work and considered her painting “an entirely private pursuit.” She intended to have her works destroyed after her death—fortunately, this wish was defied by her sister Ettie, her executor. With support from Duchamp and other friends, two years after her death in 1946, the first solo exhibition of her work was mounted at the Museum of Modern Art. Ettie also privately published a book of her poetry, titled Crystal Flowers— When it was republished in 2010, it received good reviews.
Stettheimer refined what became a highly personal, often quite decorative style, making portraits, self-portraits and lively group scenes in which her friends and family make an appearance. She made several portraits of Duchamp, and a portrait of the critic, photographer and art patron Carl Van Vechten shows the kind of fantastical backgrounds she often created for her depictions of friends and social gatherings.
Florine Stettheimer, Asbury Park South, 1920, oil on canvas, 127 x 152, cm, Private Collection
Asbury Park South was a favorite of the artist’s and was eventually shown in several exhibitions in Paris. The subject is ostensibly a concert by Enrico Caruso that took place on July 4, 1920, at Asbury Park, a summer resort on Ne Jersey’s Atlantic coast. An hour by train from the city, Asbury Park was popular with New Yorkers. Many, like the Stettheimers, had summer cottages (often very large) in the area; others stayed in the grand hotels. A black middle class population grew to support the wealthy clientele, working in the hotels, etc. Like many resorts at the time, there was a segregated beach, and the designated area for blacks (located south of a large and elaborate Convention Center) was called Asbury Park South. Stettheimer depicts this population enjoying the beach and the boardwalk on a glorious summer day—well-dressed families, children playing in the sand, happy bathers in the calm ocean water, strolling couples and matrons fill the scene. Her depiction of a middle class black population is unusual for the time, when most white artists portrayed blacks in a derogatory and caricaturesque mode. We have a slightly elevated view of the boardwalk, pier, beach, and ocean, all bathed in different hues of yellow. The audience in the grandstand viewing this scene is a mixture of blacks and whites. It is a fantasy, it is whimsical, and it also is likely a social comment.
Stettheimer had visited the beach with Van Vechten, who had many black friends in his role as a patron of the Harlem Renaissance—a brilliant moment in the history of the arts in America that brought to prominence a number of African American artists and writers.
Florine Stettheimer, Portrait of Carl Van Vechten, 1922, oil on canvas, 71 x 66 cm, Yale Collection of American Literature, New Haven, CT, USA
Also, through Van Vechten Stettheimer met the composer Virgil Thomson and writer Gertrude Stein, and in 1934 she created the sets and costumes for Four Saints in Three Acts — an opera by Thomson with a libretto by Stein. For her designs, she used cellophane, a new product on the market, in innovative ways. This ended up being the work for which Stettheimer was best known during her lifetime.
Today, some of her best known paintings—on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York—are her “Cathedrals.” In these four large paintings, each 4’ x 5’, made between 1929 and 1942, she created extraordinary satirical visions of New York’s economic, social, and cultural institutions. Like most of her paintings they are fantastical but also packed with symbols, representing Broadway—the entertainment and theater district in New York; Wall Street, the financial center; Fifth Avenue, the commercial center, and the major museums, the city’s “cathedrals of art.”
Cathedrals of Broadway (1929) captures the excitement of New York City’s theater district, where neon-lit theaters showed films as well as live performances. (Although this painting preceded the onset of the Great Depression, during those years many Americans would turn to the world of entertainment, especially to films, to escape the harsh realities of their lives.) Also represented here is the popular American sport of baseball. The large screen shows a still from a black and white newsreel with the mayor NY (Jimmy Walker) ready to throw out the first pitch of the baseball season. An elaborate stage show is taking place below the screen. The names of famous theaters glow around the central proscenium arch.
Florine Stettheimer, Cathedrals of Broadway, 1929, oil on canvas, 153 x 127 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA
In Cathedrals of Fifth Ave (1931), Stettheimer treats the spectacles of high society and consumerism with some humor. A newly wedded couple emerges from St Patrick’s Cathedral, located on Fifth Ave. They are ready to begin a life of excess and acquisition (even during the Depression years). Floating above them are the names of New York’s most exclusive shops and food establishments. (Tiffany’s is spelled out in jeweled letters, alongside names of other stores, most that no longer exist.) At right, Stettheimer and her sisters exit a limousine in the Grand Army Plaza, near Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s gilded monument to General Sherman (the Union general who burned down Atlanta in Gone with the Wind.) On the front of her car are the initials FS (the S looking like an $–a US dollar sign). Like the other three paintings in the series, a gilded frame of the artist’s design surrounds the canvas.
Florine Stettheimer, Cathedrals of Fifth Avenue, 1933, oil on canvas, 153 x 127 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA
Cathedrals of Wall Street (1939) unites various public figures with the major financial establishments of the day, suggesting the close relationship between politics and big business in New York. The reimagined facade of the New York Stock Exchange pays homage to President Franklin D. Roosevelt (a hero of Stettheimer’s) and the financial leaders Bernard Baruch, John D. Rockefeller, and J. P. Morgan. In contrast to the symbols of wealth and power, Stettheimer adds a group of Salvation Army workers. On the occasion of the 150th anniversary of his taking office as the first U.S. president, Stettheimer is offering a bouquet of flowers to the brightly gilded sculpture of George Washington outside the former Subtreasury Building, where that event took place.
Florine Stettheimer, Cathedrals of Wall Street, 1939, oil on canvas, 153 x 127 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA
Cathedrals of Art (1942) is another fantastical portrait of New York institutions, in this case, those of the art world. Microcosms of three of the city’s major museums and their collections are watched over by their directors: the Museum of Modern Art (upper left), The Metropolitan Museum of Art (center), and the Whitney Museum of American Art (upper right). A gathering of art critics, dealers, and photographers of the day, including Stettheimer herself (lower right), can be seen gathered around the Metropolitan’s grand staircase.
Florine Stettheimer, Cathedrals of Art, 1941, oil on canvas, 153 x 127 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA
Florine Stettheimer, Self-Portrait with Palette (Painter and Faun), c1915, oil on canvas, 152 x 183 cm, Columbia University, Nw York, NY, USA
Florine Stettheimer, Family Portrait, 1933, oil on canvas, 117 x 164 cm, Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, USA
Florine Stettheimer, Marcel Duchamp, 1923-26, oil on canvas
PB, 3 April 2018, Meeting No 14