NEW YORK — Was Florine Stettheimer a feminist vanguard or simply a victim of extreme separation anxiety? Either way, her genius immortalized itself in paint and poetry in Jazz Age New York.
With lines like, “Dance marathons and poultry shows, soulsavings and rodeos,” the lifelong bachelorette painted social commentary and satire in bold, bright strokes.
“Stettheimer has sometimes been typecast as a lightweight feminine artist with a whimsical bent. This view is belied by her powerful thinking of portraiture and her astute adaptation of European vanguard ideas, most notably Symbolism, to uniquely American imagery,” said Stephen Brown, Neubauer Family Foundation associate curator at The Jewish Museum.
Now, with Florine Stettheimer: Painting Poetry, the museum aims to give the artist her due. In this first major exhibition of her work in over 20 years, more than 50 pieces — including paintings and drawings, a selection of costumes, theater designs, photographs, ephemera, and poems — are on display.
But more than that, Brown said, the exhibit allows viewers to reconsider, or perhaps be introduced to, this “chestnut of 20th century art, the way she played between high art and mass culture.”
Indeed, she is “not [a] well-known enough painter,” said Ruth Beech, deputy director of programing at The Jewish Museum.
Born to a wealthy Jewish family in Rochester, New York, Stettheimer moved as a child to Manhattan where the family mingled with likes of the Seligmans, Morgenthaus, Guggenheims and Warburgs. Her father, Joseph Stettheimer, made his fortune in banking and left the family early on. But her mother Rosetta Walter Stettheimer had an ample inheritance that allowed her and her children to lead comfortable and privileged lives.
After her father left, the three youngest children — Carrie, Florine and Ettie — stuck close to their mother, traveling between the US and Europe, where Stettheimer received much of her education. It was an arrangement that would last throughout their lives, until her mother’s death in 1935.
It was in Europe where she encountered the Symbolist painters and poets, and swooned at the Ballets Russes. All of these experiences deeply affected her art, which could contain both dramatic and surreal elements, said Brown.
With the outbreak of World War I, the 43-year-old sailed with her family back to New York City. Two years later, in 1916, she debuted on the New York art scene with a solo show at the prestigious Knoedler Gallery.
The venture was disappointing to say the least; not only was the press tepid, she sold no paintings.
And so Stettheimer, her sisters and their mother tried a new tack, hosting an elite salon. On any given night the likes of Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe, Elie Nadelman or Gaston Lachaise could be found sipping cocktails until the wee hours of the morning.
The legendary parties held inside Stettheimer’s rooms at the Beaux-Arts building overlooking Bryant Park allowed her a way to unveil her latest works.
By 1918, Stettheimer had found her voice, exemplified in the 1918 painting Picnic at Bedford Hills. As in so many of her works, she painted those closest to her. Here her subjects are none other than Stettheimer’s family and friends, along with herself: her sister Carrie and good friend Marcel Duchamp set out a picnic, and sculptor Elie Nadelman is sprawled out near her sister Ettie. The painting is evocative of folk art and Art Deco fashion illustration, Brown said.
And there are shades of the political in her work: Her “1920 Asbury Park South” depicts black and white beachgoers mixing on the New Jersey beach, when, in fact, Asbury Park was a segregated beach. And her “1921 Spring Sale at Bendel’s” zeroed in on the conspicuous consumption that seemed to take over the nation after WWI.
“In fact Stettheimer’s ability to paint in a satirical and caricaturist way is really, I would say, unmatched in the 20th century. And it takes an incredible amount of skill to do that,” Brown said.
The museum organized the exhibit, which opened on May 5 and runs through September 24, together with the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto. It also includes more than a dozen costume and set designs by Stettheimer for the 1934 opera “Four Saints in Three Acts.” Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein’s groundbreaking opera featured an all African-American cast.
Additionally, Stettheimer was as gifted with pen as she was paintbrush — though only her friends and family were privy to her verse.
“She was using poetry not just to make a well-crafted piece of literature, but when she had a problem or an issue she wrote a poem about it to work it out,” Brown said.
She wrote about nature, food, people, her milieu and the evolving cityscape around her.
Her poem “Then Back to New York” illustrates this tumultuous world with the lines, “And skytowers had begun to grow, and front stoop houses started to go, and life became quite different.”
Little did she know how much she was contributing to this change.