On paper, the life of painter Florine Stettheimer (1871–1944) might strike the casual observer as that of an unimportant artist, a dilettante. She was born into great wealth, traveled widely, was educated in Europe, and spent most of her waking hours either socializing or at work in her studio. She adored fashion and the theater and throwing parties: all indulgences the grand art narratives typically use to undercut a Modernist’s cultural significance. (Gertrude Stein may be one exception.) Yet in Stettheimer’s case, indulgence was what allowed her to develop her inimitable hand — one that radiated an essential joie de vivre — and to honor her rarefied place in the world. More than fifty paintings and drawings, as well as her theater designs and ephemera, are on view in “Florine Stettheimer: Painting Poetry,” the Jewish Museum’s reverent and lovely celebration of the artist, whose life story was as colorful and mesmerizing as her work.
Wealth is what you make of it, and for the “Stetties,” as she and her two sisters were called, money afforded them freedom — leisure of time and mind and an absence of unwanted distraction. They could be exactly as they wished. The eldest sister, Carrie, tended to the Stettheimer banking fortune, which allowed the younger two to pursue their passions: Ettie immersed herself in philosophy, earning her Ph.D. from the University of Freiburg, while Florine pursued art. None of them ever married, instead choosing to live together with their mother, most notably in a luxe fourteen-room apartment in Alwyn Court on West 58th Street — “Château Stettheimer,” as writer and photographer Carl Van Vechten dubbed it.
The Stettheimers were domestic but not at all domesticated, reinventing the idea of home to suit themselves. They hosted glamorous salons, opening their doors to an extended family of avant-gardians and other free spirits including Van Vechten, art critic Henry McBride, photographer Edward Steichen, painters Georgia O’Keeffe and Charles Demuth, and the notorious Marcel Duchamp — or “Duche,” as he was nicknamed by Florine. Their vibrant inner circle provided the painter not only with amusing, interesting friends, but with subjects: If life begat art, art gave life purpose. As she wrote in a poem, “Our Parties”:
Have at last a raison d’être
Seen in color and design
It amuses me
To recreate them
To paint them.
Stettheimer’s portraits of 1922–23 present her nearest and dearest as the rare birds they were. They’re all poised, impeccably posed, finely dressed, and in command of an affect that’s at once la-di-da and cerebral. (It’s noteworthy that most of the portraits on view, when not of her family or herself, are of the men in her life.) She rendered the critic McBride as rosy-faced and prim, his legs crossed tight as a debutante’s. He sits on a chair atop a vermilion rug, hovering over a dreamlike landscape of ongoing tennis matches. Along the horizon, she painted a skyscraper, a palm tree, a rainbow — all references to some of the artists McBride championed: Demuth, John Marin, Gaston Lachaise. In all her portraits, Stettheimer portrays her sitters intimately, using a deeply personal language to illuminate their character, their status, and her feeling for them, in the spirit of the Symbolist painters who most influenced her.
One of Stettheimer’s most fantastic works is Portrait of Marcel Duchamp and Rrose Sélavy (1923), in which we see Duchamp looking quite languorous in an armchair as he cranks a contraption that raises the stool on which his female alter ego, Sélavy, is perched. Duchamp had introduced this counterpart in 1920, in a series of photographs taken by Man Ray of the artist dressed in drag. (Her name punned on the French saying “Eros, c’est la vie” or “Eros, such is life.”) If, in the painting, Duchamp’s presence is relatively grave, perhaps even a little glum, Sélavy is painted as a lithe and elegant pink phantom, holding court from on high. Here, Duchamp’s “other” isn’t simply an artful prank — isn’t the grand challenge to authorship — as Art History would have it. Rather, she’s a luminous part of his interior world, a fabulous balancing act — a counter-force — for his art-world eminence.
In her lifetime, Stettheimer wasn’t popularly admired like she is now. (The catalog for the exhibition includes a conversation between the Jewish Museum’s director of special exhibitions and public programs, Jens Hoffmann, and artists Silke Otto-Knapp, Cecily Brown, Jutta Koether, and others who claim Stettheimer as inspiration and influence.) Her only gallery exhibition, held in 1916 at the Knoedler Gallery, was a flop. Nothing sold, and rather than critical raves, it was received with the sound of crickets. Still, her family comforts relieved her of the expectations and compromises that career-concerns demand, and so she always just did what she loved. She displayed her paintings to guests in her home and at her studio, at times to cause a stir. When she revealed A Model (Nude Self-Portrait) in 1915 to her unwitting houseguests, the sight of her painted in her birthday suit — in homage to Manet’s once scandalous Olympia — silenced the room, if only for a moment.
Scholarship on Stettheimer, and this exhibition, makes a case for the artist’s desire to send up her social milieu, in particular the airiness of her upper-class existence: “The Painted Parody: Stettheimer and Modern Life” is the catalog’s anchor essay, by Stephen Brown, who argues that for Stettheimer, “the world was a stage, and everything was, to a certain extent, a ‘joke.’ ” This, he claims, was the root of the more philosophical underpinnings of her work. Perhaps, though I confess I couldn’t see her cutting, parodic edges. (This is a portrait of this critic, and no one else.) Her humor is apparent, absolutely. But in the vivid mayhem of Beauty Contest (1924), similar to that of Spring Sale at Bendel’s (1921) and Asbury Park South (1920) — all theatrical canvases that capture busy people and busy scenes — there appears such a tender feeling for human folly, for life, that parody seems an unnecessary reduction of the nuanced registers she strikes. Neither does she seem “campy,” as the editors of a recent edition of her collected poems, titled Crystal Flowers, try to argue. That notion seems wholly tone-deaf to her times and to the ways in which sexuality was free to express itself in that era. If anything, what beguiles about Stettheimer is how her work remains slightly mysterious, her flamboyant and unapologetically louche art materializing lives that were, and are, dreamlike — and now, as then, out of reach for us in every way.