Book Cover: Florine Stettheimer: A Biography by Barbara Bloemink
Florine Stettheimer: A Biography by Barbara Bloemink
Barbara Bloemink in Dialogue with Deanna Sirlin
Barbara Bloemink photo: Lynn Goldsmith
Florine Stettheimer, photo: Peter A. Juley & Son, c. 1917-20. Peter A. Juley & Son Collection, Photograph Archives, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC.
Barbara Bloemink has written a comprehensive biography of the 20th century American artist Florine Stettheimer (1871–1944). I think I can safely say both the artist and the biographer are feminists and passionate thinkers who pursued their particular vision.
Bloemink, while pursuing her doctorate at Yale found a letter (now lost) from Georgia O’Keeffe to Florine Stettheimer. O’Keeffe wrote to her artist friend about “how impossible men are.” Artists need artists; it is understandable how these two found conversations about their lives and work. Against the advice of her professors, Bloemink made a deep dive into the art and life of Stettheimer. In her new book, Florine Stettheimer: A Biography, Bloemink places Stettheimer firmly into the art historical canon as an artist to be acknowledged for her relevance and modern views which she addressed in her paintings that include gender fluidity, racial desegregation, antisemitism and women’s rights. Stettheimer was an ardent feminist and suffragist. Her family household with her mother and two sisters hosted salons quite legendary with guests that included Marcel Duchamp, Gaston Lachaise, Charles Demuth, Pavel Tchelitchew, and Francis Picabia. Duchamp was a great friend—they painted each other’s portraits. Duchamp curated the posthumous retrospective of her work at MOMA in 1947 (catalogue by Henry McBride).
Florine Stettheimer: Spring Sale at Bendel's, 1921, Oil on canvas, 50 × 40 inches,
Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach, Florida
The white ground of Stettheimer’s paintings contain figures stacked up in space flattened and full, like the compositional structure of Hieronymus Bosch (Earthly Delights). On paintings with saturated color on a white backdrop, the artist built a mise en scène much like the theatre, opera and ballet sets she designed. Paintings morphed into the sets and costumes she designed for Virgil Thompson’s Four Saints in Three Acts; the libretto is by Gertrude Stein. The set designs included cellophane curtains, bright white lighting, and costumes of lace, silk and taffeta, all so evocative of her paintings. In 1995, at the Gramercy Hotel Art Fair, Jeffrey Deitch recreated Stettheimer’s home filled with contemporary paintings and sculpture. In 2017 Deitch revisited his curation (now at the Armory Show) with The Florine Stettheimer Collapsed Time Sale with magenta walls, cellophane curtains, and an array of artworks by artists ranging from Joe Brainard to Lisa Yuskavage.
Cellophane was invented in 1908 and in the 1920s was used to wrap vegetables, perfumes and chocolates. Stettheimer loved cellophane’s is transparency—its sheen and shine. Used in her set designs, her moment of the glitz and glam of the jazz age—a description of her studio in Henry McBride’s catalogue for the MOMA exhibition in 1946:
The studio itself was one of the curiosities of the town; and very closely related, in appearance, to the work that was done in it.
The lofty windows (the studio was double-decked) were hung with billowy cellophane curtains, and the chairs and tables were
in white and gold, the tables in glass and gold, and I have a remembrance of lamps screened with white beads and unreal but handsome gilt flowers in the vases. I certainly recall some gilt flowers in a golden bowl on the dining-room table, reinforced by draperies of some golden fabric at the windows.
An artist of her time, Bloemink’s biography places Florine Stettheimer as modern and pop, decorative, surreal and an influencer of her lifetime up to the present. Her life and art intertwine—reading her life is a path to her paintings and vision.
Jeffrey Deitch Curatorial Projects,The Florine Stettheimer Collapsed Time Salon,April 28–May 1, 1995,The Gramercy International Contemporary Art Fair,The Gramercy Park Hotel, New York
Deanna Sirlin: What was your initial reaction when you first saw the work of Florine Stettheimer? Where did this occur and which was the first of her works that you saw?
Barbara Bloemink: I first saw Stettheimer’s work at Beinecke Rare Books Library at Yale where I was researching a topic for my Ph.D. dissertation and read a letter from Georgia O’Keeffe to a woman called Florine Stettheimer about trying to go to Lake George with her husband, the photographer Alfred Stieglitz, and complaining about “men.” The letter was funny, so I went to see who “Stettheimer” was and found she was also an artist and that Beinecke had her diaries, letters, and four of her paintings in their archives. I asked to see her paintings. One, called Soiree (1917-19), is a painting of a bunch of Stettheimer’s famous artist friends looking at her paintings in her studio. It was unlike any other painting of the time as it was figurative, bright, colorful, and outright funny. It made me laugh. Although I’d never heard of Stettheimer before, I immediately decided SHE was going to be the subject of my dissertation.
Florine Stettheimer, Studio Party (Soirée), 1917–19. Oil on canvas. Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven, CT
DS: Why does Florine Stettheimer’s artwork need to be reexamined?
BB: Although she exhibited in EVERY major contemporary museum and gallery in the US from 1917-1945, and in the Paris Salon, and was the second best-known woman artist in America after O’Keeffe, and Marcel Duchamp organized her retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York after her death in 1946, she has been largely left out of the history of art. Most curators and art critics have marginalized and misrepresented her in the 70+ years since her death. This despite the fact that she was one of the most innovative modernist artists stylistically; one of the earliest consciously feminist artists and among the earliest American artists to deal with controversial subjects such as African-American segregation, Jewish antisemitism, women’s autonomy and rights, and fluid sexuality at a time when homosexuality was illegal!
DS: What was the most interesting thing you discovered in her letters and diaries (at Yale)? How might these letters allow the viewer to better understand her paintings?
BB: Stettheimer’s letters and diaries reveal her outrageous sense of humor. She received extensive academic art training at a time when most women were not allowed to get the kind and level of art training that male artists gained. She had been exposed to all the great art museums of Europe and possessed deep knowledge of all of the contemporary artists and art movements—Picasso, Matisse, Dada, etc.—before these artists’ works came to America. Stettheimer strove continually to be seen as a professional artist despite a lack of support from her family. The theatrical performances she attended in Europe and the books she read throughout her life show what a complete feminist she was.
Florine Stettheimer’s studio at the Beaux-Arts Building, New York, photograph by Peter A. Juley & Son, 1944. Image provided by Peter A. Juley & Son Collection, Photograph Archives, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC
DS: Is there a quote from one the letters and diaries that you would like to share with TAS? What is the artist’s writing style like in these letters?
BB: Regarding her feminism, she continually wrote small poems in a DADA style. Duchamp published one in his DADA magazine although she always intended these just for herself. Here is one poem demonstrating her views against marriage and her sense of humor:
Sweet little Miss Mouse
Wanted her own house
So she married Mr. Mole
And only got a hole.
Here is a quote from her diary demonstrating both her feminism and her sense of humor. She travelled throughout Europe with her mother and two sisters for the first 40 years of her life. One day they traveled by train to Lourdes, France, a Catholic site of miraculous waters that supposedly caused “miracles.” As the train arrived at Lourdes, through the window she saw a hill covered with discarded crutches and a few corsets. In her diary she wrote: “Someone left a corset behind = I should think lots of women would do that. I shed mine long ago– but never thought of donating it to anything.”
Stettheimer had a very contemporary view of the art world as being largely backed by “Money” even in the first decades of the 20th century, as can be seen in another of her private poems:
Art is spelled with a capital A
And capital also backs it
Ignorance also makes it sway
The chief thing is to make it pay
In quite a dizzy way
Florine Stettheimer, Family Portrait No. 1, 1915, Oil on canvas, 40 × 62 1/4 inches, Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library
Columbia University in the City of New York, Gift of the Estate of Ettie Stettheimer
DS: Georgia O’Keeffe was Stettheimer’s friend. What did they write to each other about? Is there one letter that is particularly significant in terms of their relationship?
BB: Their friendship is not demonstrated by the letters as much as by the fact that O’Keeffe delivered the eulogy at Stettheimer’s funeral service. She declared Stettheimer “was like her work. Her work was like her. Florine made no concessions of any kind to any person or situation. [She] put into visible form in her own way something [of] a way of life that is going and cannot happen again, something that has been alive in our city.”
DS: Even though Stettheimer’s works are in museums such as MOMA and the Met, why is there no critical dialogue on her? Was your book designed to argue for her inclusion in the canon?
BB: Stettheimer’s paintings are in almost every major museum in the United States—at least every major museum that existed in 1950 when her lawyer donated them, as she requested prior to her death. All of these donations were eagerly accepted. Unfortunately, by the 1950s the major art style was Abstract Expressionism, a male-dominated abstract style. Despite Stettheimer’s being so well regarded by museums and critics during her lifetime, her work, like O’Keeffe’s and Frida Kahlo’s, was out of fashion and was relegated to museum basements. Whereas O’Keeffe’s and Kahlo’s works accrued increased value and visibility over the next five or six decades through auction sales, Stettheimer’s paintings were all in museum collections and not on the market. Consequently, they stayed in the basements and out of the public’s eye. Linda Nochlin re-discovered Stettheimer in her 1971 essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” and she resurfaced temporarily. My PhD dissertation and an exhibition of Stettheimer’s work at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1995 also resurfaced Stettheimer temporarily. But the many lies told about her marginalized her and meant she again disappeared into museum basements. She was misrepresented as so “eccentric she wanted her work buried/destroyed when she died” and as “so shy/virginal that when she didn’t sell at her first [too early, still derivative not yet her mature style] exhibition she never/rarely exhibited publicly again.” It is only with the Museum of Modern Art in New York’s devoting an entire gallery to Florine Stettheimer and Friends at its re-opening, and my reestablishing her as one of the 20th century’s most significant artists and a very early feminist with my 2022 biography that we can hope she has finally assumed her rightful place in the art history canon.
Florine Stettheimer, Nude Self-Portrait, 1915-16, oil on canvas, 48.25 x 68.25 inches, Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University in the City of New York
DS: Who composed the artist circle of Florine Stettheimer and attended her salons?
BB: The Stettheimer Salons were one of the most significant avant-garde Salons in NYC during the 1920s-30s, and Florine continued to hold Salons in her studio into the 1940s. They were attended by many of the most influential cultural figures in the arts of the time; the artists of the Stieglitz circle (Stieglitz, O’Keeffe, Hartley, Demuth, etc.); the European modernists in New York City (Picabia, Lachaise, Gleizes, Maurice Sterne, etc.); poets like Carl Sandburg, H.L. Mencken, Sherwood Anderson; art critics like Henry McBride; authors like Carl Van Vechten; all the major photographers, including Steichen and de Meyer; Isadora Duncan’s sister Elizabeth who had a school for dancers, and dancers from the Ballets Russes like Adolph Bolm, etc.
DS: Marcel Duchamp was her friend and supporter. How did they meet? What is known about their friendship? What did Florine Stettheimer think about Duchamp’s work?
BB: Duchamp was introduced to the Stettheimers by the Arensburgs at their Salon when he first arrived in New York from France (escaping from World War I) in 1914. Although she already spoke French, Florine was so charmed by Duchamp that she paid him for French lessons. They quickly became friends and began in-depth art conversations that lasted for decades. She painted five portraits of him, and he made a beautiful portrait drawing of her. Her double portrait of Duchamp and his female persona Rrose Sélavy includes images of a number of his “ready-mades” as well as a reference to the 4th dimension, demonstrating her deep understanding of even his most conceptual work. Duchamp helped arrange for her work to be exhibited at the Paris Salon and asked to curate her retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York upon her death, because he so respected her work. As he wrote, “Besides my personal admiration for her work, I think her large allegories of New York as well as her family scenes and her portraits deserve to be shown to the public…A New York painter, she was among the first artists who, twenty-five years ago, helped build up the ‘school’ of New York.”
Florine Stettheimer, Sunday Afternoon in the Country, 1917, Oil on canvas. 50 3/8 x 36 3/8 inches
The Cleveland Museum of Art. Gift of Ettie Stettheimer
DS: Florine Stettheimer also designed the sets for Gertrude Stein’s opera. Why do you think they were not sympathetic to each other? Were they polar opposites?
BB: Even Stettheimer felt they were opposites in every way, as is particularly clear from her answer to a journalist who asked her about any similarities in their work. Stettheimer replied, “I’ve never met [Stein]. In fact, I’ve hardly read her. I’ve started a number of times … got tired. We we are at the opposite extreme ends of the pole you might say … I put in infinite detail, as you can see … when things become so abstract that the artist merely suggests his ideas, they are so abstract that the artist might as well retire from the scene altogether, and let the public find the idea for themselves in the first place.”
DS: As an early feminist, what did Stettheimer do for the movement? Was she a suffragette? Was she politically active in any way?
BB: Stettheimer wasn’t “active” politically but she and her sister attended one of the first “women’s conferences” in Paris near the turn of the century, according to pamphlets in their archives. Astonishingly, she had white pantaloons made especially for her, and she depicted herself in many of her paintings wearing the pantaloons and an artist’s black beret and carrying an artist’s palette and a paint brush to ensure she was seen clearly as a professional artist. (Like Cindy Sherman, Stettheimer included her own portrait in many works, appearing as both the “observer and the observed.”) At the time, pants or pant-like pantaloons were worn only by lesbians in Paris (the only place in Europe or the US where it wasn’t illegal to be not heterosexual) or suffragettes and the so-called “New Woman,” largely in Europe from the 1880s (until very late in the US in the late teens to 1920). The white color was a symbol of women’s right to vote.
As I stated earlier, Stettheimer read feminist-style books throughout her life, went to every theatrical performance with a feminist theme while in Europe, such as Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, and attended controversial performances like Nijinsky's masturbating on a scarf in the Ballets Russes’s Afternoon of a Faun, which was closed soon after the premier, and Salome’s nude performance—proving she wasn’t “virginal” in her thinking. She also made an astonishing painting of her sister Ettie naked, lying in the sun with her genitals visible, something no other woman painted until the 1960s! Her 1915 Nude Self-Portrait (a humorous play on Manet’s Olympia and Goya’s Nude Maja), painted when she was already considered late middle-aged at 45, is only the second nude self-portrait by a woman in Western art history, and the first consciously feminist one.
Florine Stettheimer, La Fete a Duchamp, 1917, oil on canvas, 35 x 45 inches, Private Collection
DS: Was Stettheimer unique for her time? In what ways?
BB: In addition to her many accomplishments and firsts, Stettheimer, when she returned to NYC in 1914, consciously decided to create a NEW style and subject matter to capture what she recognized as a uniquely modern, 20th century New York City (as opposed to traditional Europe). She created a theatrical, feminine style of figure-based paintings that document actual major avant-garde people, places, and events and that represented and celebrated the new architectural growth, movie theaters, and parties of the city. Among many other curators and critics who noted her importance as a unique documenter of her time, Carl Van Vechten eulogized her, stating that Stettheimer “was both the historian and the critic of her period and she goes a long way toward telling us how some of New York lives in those strange years after the First World War, telling us in brilliant color and assured designs, telling us in painting that has few rivals in her day or ours.”
DS: I see a kinship to James Ensor in Stettheimer’s palette, especially in placing intense color against a white background. Do you think Stettheimer knew Ensor’s paintings and vice versa?
BB: You are absolutely right in that both chose bright, almost primary colors and a crowded figural composition, and created their own abbreviated rather than realistic styles. In Stettheimer’s case, however, there is still evidence of her academic training in her use of perspective, shading, etc. There is no evidence that Stettheimer knew Ensor’s work other than perhaps from art journals (which she read constantly), but she certainly was not influenced by his work. Her influences were the Ballets Russes and her own 1912 ballet creations for Orphée. With her ballet sets and costumes, she created the exact style she would later transfer to her mature paintings. This style combined what she saw in their productions, the popular Rococo revival in Europe, and her own interest in creating a new feminine type of painting. I doubt Ensor knew her work, as she never exhibited in Europe and her work was not reproduced in European periodicals during her lifetime. Ensor’s work is more “nastily” based while hers is more positively humorous, though subtly ironic in places (her poetry is a bit “nastier”).
Jeffrey Deitch Curatorial Projects, Florine Stettheimer Collapsed Time Salon, May 2–6, 2017, The Armory Show, New York
DS: Jeffrey Deitch staged two events in honor of Stettheimer at art fairs in 1995 and again in 2017. He staged The Florine Stettheimer Collapsed Time Salon first in the penthouse of the Gramercy Park Hotel during its art fair and then at the Armory show. What are your thoughts about this instillation? Can you describe your experience of Collapsed Time?
BB: I was very involved in the 1995 Gramercy Park Hotel Stettheimer Salon as it was based on and concurrent with my Stettheimer retrospective at the Whitney. I basically created it along with Jeanne Greenberg (now Jeanne Rohatyn of Studio 94) who worked at Jeffrey Deitch’s Gallery. Jeffrey approached me to organize it as he already knew and liked Stettheimer’s work and represented a number of artists who were among the earliest to cite her influence, including Kiki Smith, Robert Greene, and the Pattern and Decoration artists. (Andy Warhol also saw her work in the basement of the Metropolitan in the 60s and declared that Florine Stettheimer was his favorite artist!) Paintings by these artists were placed all around the hotel bedroom and in the bathroom, and there was a series of lectures by artists for the event. During the art fair, the public wandered in and could buy the art and attend the lectures.
I was not involved in the more recent Deitch installation at Art Basel Miami where he dedicated his entire large double booth to “Florine Stettheimer” and painted the walls bright pink. In the center he had borrowed one of her most important paintings, Asbury Park South (1920), a bright yellow painting depicting the segregated New Jersey beach filled with upper middle class African Americans enjoying a bright sunny day, walking along the boardwalk, and playing on the sand. Once again, paintings by contemporary artists whose work resembles elements of Stettheimer’s, many of whom love her work and claim they have been influenced by her over the years, were placed around her paintings.
Jeffrey Deitch Curatorial Projects, Florine Stettheimer Collapsed Time Salon, May 2–6, 2017, The Armory Show, New York
DS: Do you think Stettheimer should be grouped with other women artists of the twentieth century that have insider/outsider status?
I would like to suggest that this would include Frida Kahlo, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Paula Modersohn-Becker—all of whom achieved cult status. Why has Stettheimer been left out?
BB: As I said earlier, artists’ reputations and visibility develop to a major extent based on their appearance in the marketplace—auctions and galleries. As their work grows in monetary value and they receive media attention in addition to museum exhibitions, they get public attention and reputations. To a huge extent this happened with O’Keeffe and Kahlo who, in the 50s and 60s were forgotten/unknown. As
I observed earlier, since 90% of Stettheimer’s work was in museum collections after her death, it was not available to circulate in the marketplace.
The other main reason Stettheimer has been left out of the canon is that art critics and curators regularly misrepresent the artist and her work. For example, even the latest Whitney Collections catalogue states that Stettheimer “exhibited her paintings only rarely during her lifetime” when in fact she exhibited 49 times in her lifetime, including in the first Whitney Biennial! As another example, the chief curator wrote in the catalog for Florine Stettheimer: Painting Poetry at the Jewish Museum in 2017 that she had “wanted her paintings destroyed when she died.” In fact, she wanted all her work donated to museums; since all the curators had wanted her to exhibit with them, she knew they would accept her work!
I wrote my biography to dispute these untruths factually for once and for all. I am delighted with its sales and critical reception and with the new gallery at the Museum of Modern Art dedicated to her work. Hopefully, she will now be seen, alongside of Kahlo, O’Keeffe and Modersohn-Becker, as one of the most significant and innovative artists of the early 20th century.
Dr. Barbara J. Bloemink is the former director of and chief curator of five US Art Museums, an adjunct professor, and international lecturer. She has organized over 70 exhibitions on art and design and written numerous books and publications. She received a Ph.D. from Yale University, two Master’s Degrees in art history and her B.A. from Stanford University.
Deanna Sirlin is an artist and writer from Brooklyn, New York currently living and working outside of Atlanta, Georgia.
Her current exhibition, Wavetable is on view at 211 East 43rd street, NYC, NY 10017 through August 14, 2023.