FLORINE STETTHEIMER: Feminist Provocateur

Calla Lily ArtArleen Solomon RotchinComment

She was an acute and opinionated observer of the people and rapidly changing world around her.  Florine Stettheimer was a feminist.

One of her closest friends, Marcel Duchamps, often called her a ‘bachelor’, playing on the French bachelier or ‘new woman’, a term used to refer to early feminists.

Stettheimer grew up in New York City and Europe in a wealthy, matriarchal family of unusually strong, highly educated and accomplished women.  With her mother and two sisters, she spent the early 1900’s in Europe, living in Germany and traveling to France, Italy, London and Spain, frequenting art museums, galleries, artists’ studios and salons.  

When the First World War broke out, the Stettheimers were stranded in Switzerland and in 1914 they boarded a ship to America.  

Exhilarated by the progressively modern character of New York City, Stettheimer abandoned her European training and decided to create a uniquely American style that reflected the new century.

A feminist, she understood the provocative nature of basing her compositions on the rarely seen female point of view as well as the significance of her choice to create an overtly feminine style.

Except for her portraits, her paintings are composed as sensorial stage settings with animated movement, thick, tactile paint, pure colours reflecting moods with implications of noise and music. Her figures seem to move like dancers across the space, their feet often shaped as though en pointe.

Her friend, US novelist, music and drama critic, Carl Van Vechten said, ‘Stettheimer was a complete self-centered and dedicated person.  She did not inspire love or affection or even a warm friendship, but she did elicit interest, respect, admiration and enthusiasm.’

Portrait of her friend Carl Van Vechten (1922)

Portrait of her friend Carl Van Vechten (1922)

In 1915 Stettheimer completed Self-Portrait, the first known example of a woman painting herself entirely nude.  

As erotic subjects for male viewers’ pleasure, nude figures were traditionally painted with their eyes averted or closed.  Stettheimer’s self-portrait was considered shocking or ‘morally depraved’ because of her confrontational gaze.

She never painted ‘fantasies’.  Her work was based on factual thoroughly researched details and her style and subject matter were carefully chosen.  She chose to portray unique subjects, including race, sexual orientation, gender and religion.

In 1919, she painted Lake Placid set at the lake adjoining Camp Calumet, the summer home of her cousin Edwin Seligman who was a highly respected Columbia University economics professor.

Lake Placid was a popular summer retreat with fashionable clubs known for their bigotry against Jews and Catholics.

The figures in the painting include many of the Stettheimers’ New York friends.

All are cavorting, boating, sunbathing, and swimming at the lake. 

No one, however, would have been admitted into the Lake Placid Club or the popular Morley’s Hotel because of the aversion to association with Hebrews.

From 1915 to 1935, Florine and her sisters Ettie and Carrie hosted a salon for ‘the contemporary literati, gay and polyglot New Yorkers and expatriates.

Stettheimer preferred to restrict showing her work to a more private audience as opposed to exhibiting publicly.  She had exhibited 12 ‘high-keyed, decorative paintings’ at Knoedler & Company in Manhattan in 1916 and none were sold.

From then on, she preferred to show her work in ‘non-competitive situations.

Cushioned by family resources, she reframed from self-promotion and considered her painting ‘an entirely private pursuit’.  She intended to have her works destroyed after her death, a wish defied by her sister Ettie, her executor.

Florine Stettheimer pictured here in her Bryant Park garden c 1917-1920

Florine Stettheimer pictured here in her Bryant Park garden c 1917-1920

She wrote poems on little scraps of paper and, like Emily Dickinson, sent them to friends instead of publishing them.  Some of her poems are written in nursery style, some offer witty social critiques, and others present brilliantly satiric portraits of fellow modernists such as Gertrude Stein and Marcel Duchamp.

Stettheimer’s poems were posthumously assembled in Crystal Flowers, collected and edited by her sister Ettie and published in 1949.

She died May 11, 1944