A feminist with a penchant for wit, whimsy, and social satire, the artist and Jazz Age saloniste Florine Stettheimer (1871–1944) has often, and unfairly, been misconstrued by critics: her playfulness misread as frivolity, her style and subject matter cast as lacking gravitas. However, a new exhibition at the Jewish Museum sets the record straight, and through a thoughtful and well-organized presentation of her paintings, sculptures, costumes, theater designs, poems, and more, proves her to be not only a rare talent but a true radical as well.
Born to a wealthy Jewish family in Rochester, New York, Stettheimer spent much of her early life crisscrossing the Atlantic with her family. She studied painting in Munich, Rome, and Paris, where she came into contact with the symbolist artists and poets, and the Ballets Russes—both groups that significantly informed her work. The onset of World War I forced the family to return to New York, and they soon became fixtures in the city’s artistic vanguard, hosting a popular salon in their home that attracted the likes of Marcel Duchamp, Alfred Stieglitz, Elie Nadelman, and Gaston Lachaise.
The salon became a showcase for Stettheimer’s work. One exhibition standout is a display of carefully constructed sketches, maquettes, and sculptures she created as set and costume designs for her unrealized theatrical production, Orpheus of the Four Arts, inspired by the Ballets Russes. Another presents Stettheimer’s costumes for the all-black cast of Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein’s pioneering opera Four Saints in Three Acts, which come to life on handcrafted figurines.
Florine Stettheimer: Painting Poetry is loosely arranged thematically and chronologically. Her poems, known to only a few close friends and family, are sprinkled throughout the exhibition. They speak, even if not directly, to the ideas and issues present in her paintings, often with the same tongue-in-cheek tenor. Her poem “Then Back to New York” details the changes to the city—the rampant development, the influx of population, the shifting social mores and desires. She puts herself squarely in their midst, the faithful observer, concluding: “And what I should like is to paint this thing.” A few feet away hangs Asbury Park South, a rhythmic beach scene filled with black and white figures, who would normally have been segregated, side by side on the sand and boardwalk, with friends like Duchamp making an appearance. And here is Stettheimer again, the figure with a green umbrella, both as onlooker and participant in the moment—at once an insider and an outsider, going with and against the current.
Florine Stettheimer: Painting Poetry • Jewish Museum, New York • to September 24 • thejewishmuseum.org
Florine Stettheimer: Painting Poetry • Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto • October 21 to January 28, 2018 • ago.ca