Saturday, September 2, 2017

Discovering Florine Stettheimer

Family Portrait II (1933)
A surge of excitement ran through me the moment Wendi and I entered the Florine Stettheimer: Painting Poetry exhibit at the Jewish Museum. Her paintings nearly burst off the walls with color and life. Many had a Chagall-like feeling to them with their sense of whimsy. Who was Florine Stettheimer, and why had I never heard of her?

The Stettheimers were a wealthy Jewish family who were contemporaries of the Guggenheims and Morgenthaus in New York. They were intellectuals who traveled the world. Joseph abandoned his wife and five children when the kids were young. But Rosetta had family money of her own, so their luxurious lifestyle was not hindered by his absence.

Detail from Spring Sale at Bendels (1921)
Prior to World War I, the family lived in Europe, where Florine studied painting in the cultural capitals of the Continent. But with the outbreak of the War, Florine, her mother and two of her sisters moved back to New York. Florine and her sisters--who became known as the "Stetties"--moved in the artistic circles of the day. Their home became a salon of sorts for avant garde society. Their guests included Marcel Duchamp and Georgia O'Keeffe.

Florine also wrote poetry that had a tongue-in-cheek quality about it. (Her daring self-portrait styled after Manet's "Olympia" and Titian's "Venus of Urbino" did as well.)

A Model (Nude Self-Portrait) (1915)
Take, for instance, this untitled poem.

Our Parties
Our Picnics
Our Banquets
Our Friends
Have at last a raison d'etre
Seen in color and design
It amuses me
To recreate them
To paint them.

Florine's work as an artist extended to costume and set design. She designed both for an opera entitled Four Saints in Three Acts by Virgil Thomson. Gertrude Stein wrote one of the opera's librettos.

Costume for "Georgette" 
Florine also wrote a ballet inspired by a performance of Debussy's Afternoon of a Faun danced by the Ballet Russes. It was called Revellers of the Four Arts Ball, and one of the ballet's themes was the transience of pleasure. Although the ballet was never produced, the exhibit contained many of Florine's costume designs for the work. They are spectacular.

Now knowing a bit about who Florine Stettheimer was, I still wondered why I'd never heard of her. The exhibit description explained that Florine has frequently been considered "a lightweight feminine artist." But her lack of name recognition might also result from her low-key profile during her lifetime. Florine apparently intended her paintings and poetry be enjoyed primarily by family and friends. In fact, she had expressed a desire to have her work destroyed after her death. Luckily, her sister Ettie, who served as executor, ignored this wish.

For a more scholarly review of the show, read Roberta Smith's article in the New York Times by clicking here. (The article also includes more images of Stettheimer's vibrant artwork.)

Florine Stettheimer: Painting in Poetry will be on display at the Jewish Museum in New York through September 24th. It's an exhibit that you are sure to leave with a smile on your face. 

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