Published on August 27th, 2017 | by Christopher Alain1
Poet’s Palatte : The Works of Florine Stettheimer
A modernist painter, poet and jazz age icon Florine Stettheimer shares her colorful world in over 50 paintings and drawings at New York City’s Jewish Museum, May 5 – September 24, 2017.
To the uninitiated, Florine Stettheimer would seem like another kohl eyed jazz baby who is savvy with a brush and an easel. That was my initial impression when I looked into her work. I am pleased to say I was wrong. A glimpse into this world is one of luminescent dances, colorful bouquets, and brilliant hues. Flappers sashay with lengthy boas and twentieth-century dandies preen in tweed suits and felt hats along with fashionable ladies in opalescent Poiret gowns. People parade in the streets. Unicorns and mythical birds cavort in meadows and Christmas trees burst into magical flames. In her work, one can see shades of other visionaries such as Chagall, Mondrian, and even Monet.
It’s an attractive, yet still meaningful world, and speaks volumes about the artist herself and the world of her easel. A feminist with a reluctant bent and a visonary brush, capturing the world about her, while invoking meaning, storytelling and even a bit of satire.
Florine Stettheimer was born to Rosetta Walter and Joseph Stettheimer on August 29th, 1871 in Rochester, New York. Her family was of German Jewish ancestry. Florian was one of five children. Her father left the family at a young age, and she forged a close relationship with her mother who educated her abroad in the arts, traveling to such cities as Berlin, Stuttgart, and Munich.
A shy and quiet girl, she spoke through her own unique eye, Florine began to form her own artistic voice in New York City after World War I. Naturally progressive, she and her sisters hosted a salon for artists and visionary minds that openly welcomed gays and expatriates. She cultivated an Avante Garde collective and in opening her brush to many influences, she began to develop her own painterly language. She entered her work in several exhibitions including the Annual Exhibitions of the Society of Independent Artists. She crafted and cultivated her distinct style. Like Rembrandt, she formed her artistry through her face in several self-portraits.
Florine’s bodies and portraits are drawn from all aspects of 1920’s life. Art critics and financiers, dapper gentleman, fashionable matrons, tennis players and ladies of fashion and even a bit of biography fill her body of work. Mystical scenes, wild revelries, intimate moments and some self-caricature are present. Through all of this, the artist exhibits a smooth flow, as every aspect of her subject, from gloves to tassels to daisies are in perfect rhythm with one another. One wonders how much the artist’s studies of Art Nouveau influenced her canvas.
Perhaps Stettheimer’s most notable work is “Picnic at Bedford Hills,” which features the painter Marcel Duchamp and several ladies leisurely enjoying a day in the country with its serene yellow fields. The painting I found most captivating was “Portrait of Myself,” featuring the artist smiling serenely in a fiery crimson cloak which seems to serve as almost angelic wings. She is wrapped in an opaque bouquet of flowers under a brilliant sun.
An artist of many faces, Stettheimer’s body of work extended also into poetry. A modest writer, who wrote works on scraps of paper to be sent to friends and read among her circles rather then have them published, hers are satirical and often amusing portraits of her contemporaries such as Gertrude Stein who she referred to as “Gertie,” and Marcel Duchamp, who’s referred to as “Duche.” Within her poetry, Stettheimer exhibits a marvelous display of wit, coupled with observant critiques on modern culture and marriage. Her poems were published posthumously in a collection called “Crystal Flowers,” assembled her his sister Ettie in 1949 and republished in 2010.
Stettheimer’s work as a stage designer is prolific. In 1934 she was the set designer for “Four Saints and Three Acts,” an opera which included a libretto by Gertrude Stein. Stettheimer’s destinctive flair for performance was exhibited when she composed the libretto for “Orphée of the Quat-z-arts » or the « Revellers of the 4 Arts Ball,” a yearly soiree composed by the art guilds of Paris.
Many critics hailed Stettheimer’s work during her lifetime, calling her a visionary and a true feminist pioneer. Her work is included in several salons such as the Whitney Biennal and the Salon d’Automne. Modest to a fault, she turned down many requests to exhibit shows of her own, despite numerous offers.
On May 11, 1944, Stettheimer passed away from cancer at the age of 72.
In her life and legacy, and whether by intention or design, Stettheimer was a true provocateur. A silent and modest woman who let her brush speak the words she herself seldom uttered. Speaking fluently on race, gender, sexuality and the times she lived in, her work has solidified itself an essential component to the rich tapestry of feminist and modernist art, holding itself up with the likes of Georgia O’Keefe, or Marc Chagall. There is nothing antiquated about the work of Florine Stettheimer. Her luscious realm of colors and characters, provocative and marvelous, is as relevant now as it was over 80 years ago.
This article was translated in French by Sandrine Sweeney.