O'Keeffe, Stettheimer, Torr, Zorach: Women Modernists in New York

February 18 - May 15, 2016



 

Stettheimer text panel and artwork labels

 

Stettheimer text panel:

Florine Stettheimer

1871-1944

Florine Stettheimer grew up in Germany and lived largely in Europe until the outbreak of World War I in 1914. She and her two sisters devoted themselves to their mother and remained single, an unusual choice at the time. The artist's diary reveals her frustration at her upper-middle-class family's social obligations, which took her away from her work.

By 1910 Stettheimer began to shift away from the conventional academic style in which she had been trained. In Paris in 1912, she was drawn to the celebration of raw primitiveness in the Ballets Russes's avant-garde dance Afternoon of a Faun. Back in New York, she experimented with brilliant, expressive color in a Fauvist manner. The Stettheimer home became a gathering place for avant-garde artists including Marcel Duchamp, Georgia O'Keeffe, and Marguerite Zorach. Duchamp and his fellow Dadaists responded to the war's horrors by ironically undercutting the academic tradition. Stettheimer combined this impulse with the Ballet Russes's celebration of the primal and naïve, using elongated figures and vivid color to capture her subjects' emotion. Her forms verge on the surreal and reflect the increasing interest in the subconscious among artists by the 1920s.

For Stettheimer, painting was intensely personal: she refused to sell her work and hesitated to display it. In 1930 her friend O'Keeffe wrote her in frustration, "I wish you would become ordinary like the rest of us and show your paintings this year!" Stettheimer's privacy led others to see her as shy and unconfident. In fact, Stettheimer believed in her art, but by keeping it within the traditionally female domestic world instead of engaging with the public, masculine realm, she made it easy to dismiss. That she preferred to paint family and friends and used pastel colors and delicate forms only seemed to reinforce her work's femininity. As a result, many critics since her death have defined her work according to her gender, denying its complexity. Stettheimer asked her sister Ettie to destroy her paintings when she died, but Ettie gave them to institutions, making possible a reassessment of this distinctive painter's modernism.

 

Stettheimer labels:

Florine Stettheimer
American, 1871-1944
Self-Portrait with Palette (Painter and Faun), circa 1915
Oil on canvas
Art Properties, Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University in the City of New York, Gift of the Estate of Ettie Stettheimer, 1967, 1967.17.11
 
This painting is one of Stettheimer's earliest modernist self-portraits. Casting off the descriptive approach to color she had learned in art school, she used brilliant hues -- as in the red tree -- for their expressive potential. A creature who seems to have danced right out of Stettheimer's favorite ballet, Afternoon of a Faun, at the same scale as the painter, enhancing the otherworldly mood. Stettheimer's insertion of herself into the composition creates a tension between the modern painter and the primordial landscape around her. Instead of depicting herself as a fashionable, upper-middle-class woman, Stettheimer portrayed herself as a professional artist, holding a palette and brush and wearing the harem pants and red heels in which she worked.
 
 
Florine Stettheimer
American, 1871-1944
A Model (Nude Self-Portrait), circa 1915-16
Oil on canvas
Art Properties, Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University in the City of New York, Gift of the Estate of Ettie Stettheimer, 1967, 1967.23.29
 
In this most shocking of Stettheimer's many self-portraits, she depicts herself nude. As was typical, the artist idealized her form so that it is far from how she actually appeared in her mid-40s. The painter looks the viewer straight in the eye, calling attention to the artificiality of the academic nude as an artistic construct, just as modernist painters had been doing since the mid-19th century. Although she was not as active in the women's movement as her sister Ettie, Stettheimer was a feminist. Here, her small smile suggests the humor inherent in a woman painter placing herself in this traditional pose, which was usually intended to encourage male viewers to gaze at a powerless female model.
 
 
Florine Stettheimer
American, 1871-1944
Jenny and Genevieve, circa 1915
Oil on canvas
Art Properties, Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University in the City of New York, Gift of the Estate of Ettie Stettheimer, 1967, 1967.23.27
 
After she left Europe and returned to New York in 1914, Stettheimer began to use brilliant planes of color to create decorative compositions that were inspired by both French painters such as Henri Matisse and Americans like Marguerite Zorach. Here, the two figures' solid three-dimensionality in the truncated space serves to make the scene claustrophobic, as the seated Genevieve and her standing maid, Jenny, seem almost stifled by the vibrating rhythms of the rug and curtains. Genevieve seems bored, sitting with her chin in her hands. Her entrapment in this decorative world evokes Stettheimer's own position, constrained by a well-bred existence that prevented her from having the time she wanted for her art.
 
 
Florine Stettheimer
American, 1871-1944
Picnic at Bedford Hills, 1918
Oil on canvas
Courtesy of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia. Gift of Ettie Stettheimer
 
This painting portrays Stettheimer's favorite subject: her family and friends. She depicts herself under a parasol picnicking with her sisters and the European avant-garde artists Marcel Duchamp (in purple) and Elie Nadelman (in yellow). The scene takes place in Bedford Hills, New York, where the family had gone for the summer. The elongated, brilliantly colored figures on the vibrant yellow of the grass suggest the picnic's fantastical atmosphere of heat, leisure, and wit, which contrasts with the solidity of the farmers working in the background. Stettheimer and Duchamp were particularly close, and, as this painting demonstrates, by this time she shared his Dadaist conviction that the academic art tradition needed to be overturned.
 
 
Florine Stettheimer
American, 1871-1944
Still Life with Flowers, 1921
Oil on canvas mounted on hardboard
Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Gift of Miss Ettie Stettheimer to the California Palace of the Legion of Honor
 
After returning to New York in 1914, Stettheimer began a series of floral still lifes. Although the first resemble those of Fauvists such as Henri Matisse, by the time she painted this canvas she had developed her own distinctive take on the subject. Emphasizing their fundamentally visual meaning, Stettheimer called these paintings her "eyegays." Here, the juxtaposition of oranges, pinks, and reds creates a vibrating mass that, coupled with the bouquets' suggestive forms, makes the blossoms seem to come alive, as if they are about to burst out of the canvas. Critic Henry McBride compared the "whimsicality" and "waywardness" of such works to the Surrealism of Spanish painter Joan Miró.
 
 
Florine Stettheimer
American, 1871-1944
Spring Sale at Bendel's, 1921
Oil on canvas
Philadelphia Museum of Art, Gift of Miss Ettie Stettheimer, 1951
 
In this painting, Stettheimer used her characteristically expressive figures to poke fun at her own privileged world, specifically the annual frenzy that occurred when the luxury clothing store Bendel's had its spring sale. As she often did, she framed the composition with curtains, presenting the painting's action as a kind of theater. Here, women prance in their new finery and leap across the room in order to reach items first. Stettheimer's use of such satire is allied with her friend Marcel Duchamp's Dadaism and was noted by contemporaries such as critic Paul Rosenfeld, who wrote that her work was "an expression of aspects of America, tinged with [the] irony and merriment of a very perceptive and very detached observer."
 
 
Florine Stettheimer
American, 1871-1944
Portrait of Myself, 1923
Oil on canvas laid on board
Art Properties, Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University in the City of New York, Gift of the Estate of Ettie Stettheimer, 1967, 1967.17.05
 
This canvas is one of a series of Surrealist portraits that Stettheimer did of herself and her sisters in 1923. The title, unlike the more usual "Self Portrait," emphasizes that her subject is her personality -- her "self." The figure gazes straight at the viewer under a banner that reads Florine. Behind her, a red cloak suggests wings that may be keeping her afloat. By placing herself near the sun, Stettheimer evoked the Greek myth of Icarus, who arrogantly flew too close to the sun and died. This depiction may allude to the dangers she saw in her own growing fame. Yet the painting's otherworldly setting also suggests the private realm in which the artist preferred to work and live.
 
 
Florine Stettheimer
American, 1871-1944
Portrait of My Sister, Carrie W. Stettheimer, 1923
Oil on canvas laid on hardboard backing
Art Properties, Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University in the City of New York, Gift of the Estate of Ettie Stettheimer, 1967, 1967.17.07
 
This picture is one of a series of Surrealist portraits that Stettheimer made of herself and her sisters in 1923. Carrie was the family's most socially engaged member, and her gown, curtains, and rug suggest her sophistication. Simultaneously, her pose -- she holds a miniature chair before her large-scale dollhouse, now in the Museum of the City of New York -- communicates the creativity that inspired her to continue to perfect that work from 1916 to 1935. Behind her sister, Stettheimer painted her family at table, emphasizing Carrie's key role by placing her at the head. By showing Carrie both standing elegantly by her dollhouse and seated with her family, Stettheimer communicated the many roles that defined her.
 
 
Florine Stettheimer
American, 1871-1944
Portrait of My Sister, Ettie Stettheimer, 1923
Oil on canvas laid on hardboard backing
Art Properties, Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University in the City of New York, Gift of the Estate of Ettie Stettheimer, 1967, 1967.17.09
 
This is one of a series of Surrealist portraits of herself and her sisters that Stettheimer created in 1923. Like the artist in Portrait of Myself (to the left of this work), Ettie floats in an unreal space. Nevertheless, she seems almost the opposite: she lies back, while Florine sits up; she is surrounded by black night, while Florine appears in brilliant day. Next to Ettie, a burning Christmas tree evokes the Christian world in which the women lived and Moses's burning bush, symbolizing their Jewish identity. While this element suggests Ettie's dramatic flair, her figure is inactive. In fact, although she earned a Ph.D. in philosophy, Ettie's purpose in life was not at all clear. Stettheimer captured that uncertainty.
 
 
Florine Stettheimer
American, 1871-1944
Asbury Park South, 1920
Oil on canvas
Collection of Halley K. Harrisburg and Michael Rosenfeld, New York

 

 

Stettheimer 2 poems for wall:

Then back to New York
And skyscrapers had begun to grow
And front stoop houses started to go
And life became quite different
And it was as tho' someone had planted seeds
And people sprouted like common weeds
And seemed unaware of accepted things
And out of it grew an amusing thing
Which I think is American having its fling
And what I should like is to paint this thing.
 
-Florine Stettheimer, posthumously published, 1949
 
 
Occasionally
A human being
Saw my light
Rushed in
Got singed
Got scared
Rushed out
Called fire
Or it happened
That he tried
To subdue it
Or it happened
He tried to extinguish it
Never did a friend
Enjoy it
The way it was.
So I learned to
Turn it low
Turn it out
When I meet a
stranger--
Out of courtesy
I turn on a soft
Pink light
Which is found
Modest
Even charming.
it is protection
Against wear
And tears . . .
And when
I am rid of
The Always-to-be-
Stranger
I turn on my light
And become
myself.
 
-Florine Stettheimer, posthumously published, 1949

 

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