Artist, poet, and feminist Florine Stettheimer (1871-1944) was born in Rochester, New York. Her mother Rosetta Walter was from a wealthy German-Jewish family. Rosetta and the girls moved back to Stuttgart, Germany, after Florine’s father abandoned them. Florine attended a girl’s boarding school where her artistic interests were supported with private lessons. Stettheimer educated herself in art history by visiting museums and galleries in the several countries where the family traveled: Italy, France, Spain, and Germany. When the family returned to New York in 1892, Stettheimer enrolled in the Art Students League and graduated in 1896.
The family traveled to Europe frequently, and Stettheimer saw three theatrical performances that greatly influenced her art: Strauss’s Salome, Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, and Debussy’s L’Apers-midi d’un Faun. The dance of the seven veils in Salome caused Stettheimer to remark, “she looked wonderful…bust absurd…” About Aristophanes, Stettheimer complained, “The play was written by a man who was completely anti-feminist…I concluded that they should have all the roles taken by men and the performance only for men—the way it was written, no woman could enjoy it.” Although Nijinsky as the Faun caused riots, Stettheimer wrote, “I saw something beautiful last evening…Nijinsky the Faun was marvelous—He is the most wonderful male dancer I have seen…” These performances left a lasting impression on Stettheimer who painted “Self-Portrait with Palette, Painter with Faun’’ (1915) (60” x72”).
Returning to New York before World War I, the Stettheimer women, mother Rosalie, Ettie, Carrie, and Florine took up residence in a luxury apartment in Manhattan. They would live together for the rest of their lives. The influence of the art, the opera, and the freer Parisienne life-style came with them to New York. Stettheimer decided to leave behind traditional academic art in order to create her own style. She celebrated the vibrant life in New York City as she saw it. It was the era of the Harlem Renaissance, Jazz, Dada, and Surrealism. Among her many good friends were Marcel Duchamp, Georgia O’Keeffe, Cecil Beaton, Virgil Thomson, Carl Van Vechten, Charles Demuth, and Gertrude Stein.
The Stettheimers held Salons (gatherings) that were attended by mavins (connoisseurs) of the arts. “Soiree” (1917-1919) (28” x 30”) depicts the critic Leo Stein, wearing a gray suit and sitting in the center on the red rug. Talking with him is playwright Avery Hopwood, wearing a yellow suit. Also included are the Hindu poet Sankar, in black. One of Stettheimer’s sisters, in green, sits with her mother Rosalie. At the right, another of Stettheimer’s sisters, in a white dress, sits on the sofa and holds a bouquet of flowers. Last on the sofa, dressed in yellow, with her elongated feet resting on a yellow cushion, and wearing a black choker necklace, is Juliette Gleize, wife of artist Albert Gleizes. She stares in amazement at a painting on the back wall. Two men at the lower left observe a new Stettheimer painting on the easel. She preferred to exhibit her new work at her Salons.
Stettheimer’s presence is represented by the painting “A Model (Nude Self-Portrait)” (1915-16) (48’’ x 68’’), prominently hung on the back wall of her studio. Historians credit this nude self-portrait as the first ever full-scale work of its kind by a woman artist. She looks directly at the viewer with a knowing smile. Stettheimer held salons from 1915 until the end of her life. They were a cultural highlight in New York, where guests of all races, religions, and sexual preferences were included.
A feminist before the term was coined, Stettheimer remained a staunch supporter of women’s rights for her entire life. She had affairs but never married, never thinking that a man was needed. In her poems, first published by her sister Ettie in Crystal Flowers (1949), she wrote, “Occasionally a human being saw my light, rushed in, got singed, got scared, rushed out, called fire. Or it happened that he tried to subdue it. Or it happened he tried to extinguish it…Out of courtesy, I turn on a soft, pink light, which is found modest, even charming. It is a protection against wear and tears. And when I am rid of The Always-to-be-Stranger, I turn on my light and become myself.”
Stettheimer’s unique style of painting presented colorful figures, mostly family and friends, on flattened white backgrounds. Between the years 1917 and 1919, she developed fully her stylized figures and captured the essence of each personality. On first viewing, Stettheimer’s paintings are full of fun, and slightly cartoonish, but they also include subtle references to the social issues of that time. “Lake Placid” (1919) (40” x 50”) (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) is a scene of apparent gaiety and pleasure among friends. Lake Placid was a restricted community, especially to Jews and Catholics. Private cottages such as the one owned by Stettheimer’s cousin on Moose Island were open. However, they and their diverse guests were not admitted to the inns, restaurants, and other public establishments of Lake Placid.
The painting contains a full cast of characters. At the lower left, mother Rosalie, dressed in black, stands on the balcony of the large cottage. Wearing a purple robe and a yellow hat, Florine sneaks down the stairs. Sister Carrie swims toward the raft on which sit two images of sister Ettie, one dressed in red and the other in black with a yellow parasol. On the diving board is the Marques de Buenavista, a Peruvian diplomat. Lying on the raft in the flowered dress is Marie Sterner, a staff member of the Knoelder Gallery. Resting his elbows on the raft is Polish sculptor Elie Nadelman. Swimming toward the raft is a third image of Ettie in a red swimsuit. Beside her is Rabbi Stephen Wise, a leader of the liberal wing of Reform Judaism. Maurice Sterne, an artist from Latvia, paddles the canoe. With him in the canoe is Elizabeth Duncan, sister of Isadora, and a modern dance teacher. In the motor boat is Edwin Seligman, a professor and president of the Lake Placid Shore Owner’s Association. The boats and swimwear are the latest models. The passenger and mail boat “Doris” steams by in the distance.
Throughout her career, Stettheimer maintained her unique style and subject matter: New York City and the nearby vacation spots enjoyed by her friends and family. However, her social consciousness caused her to include subtle commentary on the intolerance she observed within her own upper class. “Asbury Park South” (1920) (56” x 66”) depicts the fun that could be had at the beaches, boardwalk, and casinos of the very popular summer resort. Initially white and black people enjoyed the park, but increasingly white people began to resent bathing with the black people at the beach. The beach was segregated from 1893 until 1915.
Stettheimer was a stickler for accuracy, and she carefully researched details for her paintings. Her research and close observation is evident in the varied colors used to represent African-American’s skin in “Asbury Park South.” At the lower right, mother Rosalie wears her usual black dress, and she enjoys a ride in a fantastic swan cart with red cushions and canopy. She is pushed along the golden boardwalk by a strikingly tall African-American man. An African-American child in a purple swim suit happily waves two American flags. A well-dressed African-American mother and daughter walk across the boardwalk, over the shadow cast by a Ferris wheel. Three stylish young African-American women stroll in front of a poster announcing the Fourth of July concert by Enrico Caruso.
At the center of activity on the boardwalk are Marcel Duchamp, in a pink suit, with the actress Fania Marinoff. To their left are the posts of a pavilion. As if dancing, an African-American couple glide up the steps of the pavilion toward an elegantly posed woman who looks up at the red, white, and blue decorations on the balcony. On the balcony two women converse while Carl Van Vechten, arms crossed, surveys the scene. Van Vechten, writer and photographer, was a patron of the Harlem Renaissance, and husband of Fania Marinoff. On the boardwalk platform at the right, Stettheimer looks on from under her green parasol as a svelte figure in an orange dress stretches at the bar. Two figures dressed in summer white sit on a bench with their backs to the viewer. At the end of the bench, a fashionable woman, in purple, converses with a man in a white suit and boater hat leaning against the railing.
On the beach, several large beach umbrellas supply shade for those who want it. Others enjoy the warm sun and play in the sand. A swimmer emerges from the water, and a trapeze artist swings out over the water. The bright orange ball of the Sun completes the scene and forms the top of a triangular composition of orange elements that lead the viewer through the painting.
Stettheimer thought this was one her best paintings and submitted it to several exhibitions. It is one of the earliest 20th Century paintings by a white artist that depicts African-Americans and Caucasians together. The Museum of Modern Art included “Asbury Park South” in the first exhibition of American art ever presented in Europe (1938). The only other American woman artist represented was Georgia O’Keeffe.
During her life-time, Stettheimer allowed her work to be shown in over 40 prestigious museums in New York and Paris. She died of cancer in 1944. Her close friend Marcel Duchamp curated a retrospective of her work for the Museum of Modern Art in 1946. It was the first retrospective of the work of a woman artist at MOMA. The retrospective traveled to the San Francisco Legion of Honor Museum and the Arts Club of Chicago. In an article for Harper’s Bazaar in 1947, Carl Van Vechten wrote about Stettheimer: [She] “was both the historian and the critic of her period and she goes a long way toward telling us how some of New York lived in those strange years after the First World War, telling us in brilliant colors and assured designs, telling us in painting that has few rivals in her day or ours.” Stettheimer was a painter and poet, an ardent feminist, and a critic of the social world of New York.
Beverly Hall Smith was a professor of art history for 40 years. Since retiring with her husband Kurt to Chestertown in 2014, she has taught art history classes at WC-ALL. She is also an artist whose work is sometimes in exhibitions at Chestertown RiverArts and she paints sets for the Garfield Center for the Arts.