Florine Stettheimer: Feminist Provocateur

Posted by: Kevin Coyle

This post was curated from an article written by  for Hyperallergic.com

A feminist, Florine Stettheimer 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.

Florine Stettheimer didn’t talk much. During her family’s Salons, attended by New York’s avant-garde during the 1920s-early ’40s, she let her sisters lead the discussion. However, she was an acute and opinionated observer of the people and rapidly changing world around her. A feminist, Stettheimer 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. She was confident enough of her artistic mastery to repudiate it in order to develop a new, unique style of painting. Decades before other artists, Stettheimer depicted a number of challenging subjects that remain controversial and relevant today. Yet more than one hundred years after she painted the first ever full-length nude self-portrait by a professional woman artist, she continues too often to be described as an eccentric spinster, so disheartened by not selling her work at an early exhibition that she stopped exhibiting publicly and only showed her work to friends at her private salon.

This myth, repeated even in the 2015 catalog of the Whitney Museum’s collection handbook, is compounded by critics and curators who continue describing her paintings as “précieuses,” “decorative fantasies,” “naïf,” and “resembling outsider art.” These inaccurate assessments are mostly derived from a florid 1963 biography by the film critic Parker Tyler, who only met Stettheimer when she was elderly. The other sources tend to be fifty-year-old reminiscences of a few acquaintances only familiar with the artist’s public persona. Given the true significance of Stettheimer’s contribution to twentieth-century art, it is time to put these inaccurate descriptions to rest and instead look at her radical choices of style and subject matter and the contexts in which she worked.

One of Stettheimer’s closest friends, Marcel Duchamp, often called her a “bachelor,” playing on the French bachelier, or “new woman,” a term used to refer to early feminists. As her friend Carl Van Vechten observed, Stettheimer was a “completely self-centered and dedicated person: She did not inspire love, or affection, or even warm friendship, but she did elicit interest, respect, admiration, and enthusiasm.” In addition, Stettheimer never painted “fantasies” — her works are all based on factual, thoroughly researched details — and her style and subject matter were carefully chosen. She prophetically chose to portray unique subjects, including race, sexual orientation, gender, and religion, in an equitable and open fashion. As the art critic Henry McBride wrote, she was “willful” and “unconcerned with precedent. … Miss Stettheimer knew what she was doing in her work in art.”

Stettheimer grew up in New York City and Europe in a wealthy, matriarchal family of unusually strong, highly educated and accomplished women. At a young age she gained academic art training as extensive as that of any of her male contemporaries. In the 1890s, she attended the Art Students League in New York, considered radical because of its liberal policies toward women. While there, Stettheimer painted a number of female nudes that reveal her mastery in realistically portraying the human body. With her mother and two sisters, she spent the early 1900s in Europe, living in Germany and traveling often to France, Italy, London and Spain, frequenting art museums, salons, galleries, and artists’ studios. (Among the artists about whose work Stettheimer commented in her diaries were Cézanne, Manet, Matisse, and Morisot.)

With the outbreak of the First World War, the Stettheimers found themselves stranded in Switzerland, and in 1914 they boarded a ship to the United States. Exhilarated by the progressively modern character of New York City, Stettheimer decided to abandon her European academic training and resolved to create a uniquely American style that reflected the new century. She had “become free,” in her words; she had “thrown off old shackles,” and was committed to representing life as she “sees and feels it.”

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