On first impression, the brilliantly hued paintings by Florine Stettheimer are gorgeous. If the artist was barely known beyond the cognoscenti until recently, her fame as an influential artist of jazz-age New York is blossoming now.
Born in Rochester, N.Y., to an affluent Jewish family in 1871, Stettheimer lived a life of privilege, studying art in New York, then travelling to Europe with her mother and sisters. Though brimming with inspiration from encounters with poets, symbolist painters and seeing Vaslav Nijinsky dance at the Ballets Russes in Paris, the 1914 outbreak of the First World War prompted Stettheimer and her family to return to New York.
While living with Stettheimer’s aunt, who was quite the social maven, the ladies hosted an elite salon that engaged an exclusive circle of vanguard artists and intellectuals, including Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe, Carl Van Vechten, Gaston Lachaise and Marcel Duchamp.
Stettheimer began painting the world she lived in, although in reality, it was a world she mentally conjured up, as she was coddled by family, friends and the Manhattan social strata. Using diverse media – including poetry, paintings, maquettes, as well as stage and costume designs – Stettheimer brazenly transformed the current art conventions and ultimately stimulated other artists’ creativity.
Ironically, in 1916, Stettheimer’s first (and only) solo show failed. While the avant-garde crowd was gravitating toward stark, white-walled galleries, she showcased her art at a prestigious gallery that was re-styled to emulate her own home’s ornate setting, complete with curtains and paintings set in frames and decorated with tassels and gold fringes. Unappreciated, Stettheimer chose to protect her creativity by restricting access to her work and unveiling paintings at salons in her home and studio.
The first major exhibit of her work in North America in 20 years – Florine Stettheimer: Painting Poetry – is co-curated by Georgiana Uhlyarik, the Fredrik S. Eaton curator of Canadian art at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) in Toronto, and Stephen Brown of the Jewish Museum in New York, where it was shown prior to coming to Canada.
In conversation over Stettheimer’s canvases – which are exuberant with saturated colours, often featuring lush flowers and occasionally symbols (including the snake and dragonfly), or lavish decorative elements – Uhlyarik puts the artist into modern perspective: “She was making art nearly 100 years ago, yet she appears very contemporary. She seems part of her time, yet very much of today.”
Stettheimer’s paintings are staged with allegoric theatricality. Viewing the art, one imagines her simultaneously using the paintbrush as a conductor cueing the orchestra and director positioning vivacious figures.
Enthralling self-portraits and ethereal images seemingly exist in an idyllic eden. As Uhlyarik says, to see Stettheimer’s works is to have “the ultimate encounter with someone else’s consciousness.”
In Self Portrait with Paradise Birds, Stettheimer flaunts her artistic talent with an intricately detailed Asian screen. Various portraits speak of family characteristics. Family Portrait I shows the ladies in their summer house; the matriarch, Rosetta, reads, as Stettheimer arranges flowers, while her sisters, Ettie and Carrie, chat. Ettie – an outspoken writer and intellectual – ultimately handled Stettheimer’s legacy, donating documents to Columbia and Yale universities, artworks to various American art museums and publishing Stettheimer’s poems, in a collection called Crystal Flowers. Carrie created the fantastical dollhouse that now sits in the Museum of the City of New York.
To say that Stettheimer was unabashedly audacious for the era is an understatement. Scholars concur that the fully nude woman staring provocatively at the viewer in A Model (1915), is an ageless image of the mid-40s painter herself. While Stettheimer did not publicly exhibit the portrait during her lifetime, she unveiled it at a salon event.
Laced with signs of Stettheimer’s witty perceptions, paintings that at first glance depict frivolous scenes often include an image of the artist herself as a voyeur or raconteur. If art could speak, Stettheimer’s brushstrokes could scream social commentaries equivalent to the sharpest editorial satire.
At first glance, Lake Placid (1919) illustrates a summer lakeside scene. But look closely at the characters lounging and swimming – all prominent Jews, including Rabbi Stephen Wise, a leader in Reform Judaism – and one will see the pictorial dialogue on the stigma of Jews in an era of enforced religious segregation.
Stettheimer’s family and many Jewish friends would have been barred from certain hotels, resorts and clubs. Uhlyarik notes that although Stettheimer did encounter anti-Semitism, this is one of the very few times that something obviously Jewish appears in her work.
Humour runs rampant in the monumental Spring Sale at Bendel’s (1921), which is flourished with a ruby staircase on one side and a fringed curtain on the other. Stettheimer pokes fun at the frenetic happenings of women at a sale. In the post-First World War obsession with fashion, Bendel’s was New York’s first retailer to have a semi-annual sale.
A curved wall in the exhibit reflects the inspiration Stettheimer received from seeing Vaslav Nijinsky dance at the Ballet Russes. Uhlyarik explains that, “Nijinsky inspired her to create her own visual vocabulary. He changed modern dance, so she wanted to create a new way of painting. With that mindset, Stettheimer conceptualized her own, unproduced ballet, Orphée of the Quat-z-Arts, and created sketches, sculptures and maquettes of exquisitely costumed characters.
On the other side of the curved wall runs a film that showcases Stettheimer’s trailblazing ingenuity. In 1934, she was the first American painter to design a stage production in the U.S. Collaborating with composer Virgil Thomson on his opera, Four Saints in Three Acts, which featured an all-black cast singing lyrics by Gertrude Stein, Stettheimer created costumes and cellophane-draped sets embellished with lace, fringe, feathers, velvet and beads that dazzled audiences. For this, she finally garnered the coveted recognition she has sought.