Monday, November 7, 2016

1871-1948: Florine Stettheimer, American

Florine Stettheimer was one of the great American painters of the 1920s and 1930s. A declared feminist, she rejected the current male version of modernism and developed a style that promoted stereotypical feminine characteristics, such as daintiness, delicacy, miniaturizing, and childlike simplification.

Background: Florine was from a wealthy and influential Jewish family, the fourth of five children. She was born in Rochester, New York, but the family lived in Europe off and on. They were living in Germany, and Florine was 12, when her father abandoned the family. After two older siblings married and moved away, the three sisters, Carrie, Ettie, and Florine, and their mother Rosetta, became a close-knit family. Together with their mother, the Stettheimer sisters lived and traveled in Europe for several years just after the turn of the century, often socializing with other expatriate Americans.

When it became clear that World War I was approaching, the Stettheimers returned to the United States and moved to a house on New York’s Upper West Side. Their home became the premier New York salon, a center of the city’s artistic and intellectual life.
Training: Emily’s formal art training began when she was 21. She studied for three years at the Art Students League in New York, then returned to Europe to study in Paris and Munich.

Private life: Just before World War I, Emily and her family moved back to New York and settled into an apartment near Carnegie Hall. There, they established a legendary salon that was frequented by many of the most important creative people of the time. Florine and her sisters saw marriage as a threat.
Career: Stehttheimer’s subject was the ultra-sophisticated world of parties and picnics in which her family mingled with the intellectual elite. As an ambitious feminist taking her place among New York’s avant-garde, she consciously developed an innovative, transgressive, uniquely feminine style of painting. She made paintings that are effervescent and readily lovable, completely out of step with what one imagines when thinking of early modernism.

Cushioned by wealth, she had no financial incentive to brave the struggles of exhibiting and selling her work, so she showed it mainly in her own apartment, refused to sell her canvases. Although she developed a reputation among the cultural elite of Manhattan as a significant modern painter, her work was not well known in her lifetime. She claimed her painting was an entirely private pastime, and requested that her whole body of work be burned after her death. As the executor of her estate, one of her sisters set about distributing her work to museums and building her reputation.

Browsing the Web, I found a poem written by Stettheimer and published privately after her death that beautifully captures the depth of her isolation and seems to explain her unassertive style.

from Crystal Flowers
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
That he tried to extinguish it
Never did a friend
Enjoy it
The way it was.
So I learned to
Turn it low
Turn it out
When I meet a
Out of courtesy
I turn on a soft
Pink light
Which is found
Even charming.
It is protection
Against wear
and tears…
And when
I am rid of
The Always-to-be-
I turn on my light
And become

Our photos:

Picnic at Bedford Hills, 1918
Pennsylvania Academy
Photo by Dan L. Smith, 2012

New York/Liberty, 1918
Whitney / Jan's photo
Still Life with Flowers, 1921
De Young / Jan's photo

Beauty Contest: To the Memory of P. T. Barnum, 1924
Wadsworth Atheneum / Jan's photo

Portrait of Our Nurse, Margaret Burgess, 1929
Minneapolis / Photo by Jan

The Cathedrals of Broadway, 1929
Metropolitan / Jan's photo

Sun, 1931
Whitney / Jan's photo

The Cathedrals of Fifth Avenue, 1931
Metropolitan / Jan's photo

Birthday Bouquet, 1932
Nelson-Atkins / Jan's photo

Spring 1931, 1932
Cantor / Jan's photo, 2009

Christmas, 1930-40
Yale / Jan's photo

The Cathedrals of Wall Street, 1939
Metropolitan / Jan's photo

The Cathedrals of Art, 1942
Metropolitan / Jan's photo