From the Archives: Florine Stettheimer—Rococo Subversive

Florine Stettheimer's Family Portrait No. 2, 1933, shows "the artist in her preferred setting: New York, West Side, feminine, floral, familial." From left to right—the artist, her sister Ettie, her mother, and her sister Carrie. Oil on canvas, 46¼ by 64½ inches. Museum of Modern Art.


On the occasion of the traveling retrospective, “Florine Stettheimer: Painting Poetry,” currently on view at New York’s Jewish Museum through September 24, we looked back in our archives for this 1980 essay by art historian Linda Nochlin. Stettheimer (1871–1944) is a consummate figure of the Jazz Age in New York. Along with her sisters Ettie and Carrie, Stettheimer hosted popular salons attended by friends like Marcel Duchamp and Edward Steichen. Such gatherings are frequently the subject of her lyrical paintings, which Nochlin argues are tributes to-and pointed critiques of-the well-heeled society to which she belonged. We present the article in full below. —Eds.



Combining a slyly inventive, faux-naïf style, a sophisticated cast of characters and a satiric edge, Stettheimer’s works both celebrate and mock the artist’s own social milieu—upper-class Bohemian life in New York between the World Wars.


It is admittedly difficult to reconcile the style and subject matter of Florine Stettheimer with conventional notions of a socially conscious art. 1 The Stettheimer style is gossamer light, highly artificed and complex; the iconography, refined, recondite and personal in its references. In one of her best known works, Family Portrait No. 2 of 1933, we see the artist in her preferred setting: New York, West Side, feminine, floral, familial. The family group includes her sister Ettie, whom she had portrayed in an equally memorable individual portrait ten years earlier, sitting to the artist’s right. Ettie was a philosopher who had earned a doctorate in Germany with a thesis on William James, but later turned to fiction. She wrote two highly wrought novels, Philosophy and Love Days, publishing under the pseudonym “Henrie Waste,” was originally published in 1917; Love Days in 1923. Both were republished along with a group of short stories and an English translation of her doctoral dissertation, written in 1907 for Freiburg University, on William James’s The Will to Believe in Memorial Volume of and by Ettie Stettheimer, New York, 1951.’]2 novels which would certainly by today’s standards be considered feminist in their insistence that woman’s self-realization is incompatible with romantic love, and, in the case of Love Days, in the demonstration of the devastating results of the wrong sort of amorous attachment.

To the far right is her sister Carrie, also the subject of an earlier individual portrait, hostess of the family parties and creator of the doll house now in the Museum of the City of New York. This last project was the work of a lifetime, complete with miniature reproductions of masterpieces by such artist-friends of the Stettheimers as Gaston Lachaise and William and Marguerite Zorach, as well as a thumbnail version by Marcel Duchamp of his Nude Descending a Staircase. Off center, hieratically enshrined in a shell-like golden mandorla, is the matriarch, Rosetta Walter Stettheimer. She is here shawled in lace, Florine’s favorite fabric, which Ettie and Carrie are shown wearing as well. 3 The artist herself, however, is clad in the dark painting suit that served as her work outfit, although this relatively sober turn-out is here set off by sprightly red high-heeled sandals. The whole world of the Stettheimers. set aloft amid Manhattan’s significant spires, with the blue waters surrounding the island visible below, is guarded by a stellar Statue of Liberty and domesticated by the exuberant baldaquin of 182 West 58th Street the Alwyn Court, their dwelling place). The scene is at once distanced and brought to the surface of the canvas by the resplendent three-part bouquet that dominates the composition. Perhaps each flower is meant as a reference to a sister; perhaps the willow-like frond binding them all together is meant to refer to their mother. 4 In any case, the stylish floral life of the bouquet dwarfs and overpowers the human life in the painting. One may choose to see that bouquet, and indeed, the painting as a whole, as a kind of testimonial offered by the artist to her family, her city, and to the very world of vivid artifice she created with them. “My attitude is one of Love/ is all adoration/ for all the fringes/ all the color/ all tinsel creation,” she wrote. 5

Certainly the mature style of Florine Stettheimer is based on highly idiosyncratic responses to a wide variety of sources, ranging from the later effusions of Symbolism (including the American variety recently brought to focus by Charles Eldredge in an exhibition at the Grey Gallery) to the decorative style of Henri Matisse and the set designs of the Russian Ballet––projects by Bakst, Benois, and Goncharova––which the artist encountered in Paris before World War I. More specifically, she seems to have been influenced by her friend Adolfo Best-Maugard, the Mexican artist and theorist, who playfully juggles the seven basic forms of his aesthetic system in his hand in Stettheimer’s 1920 portrait of him. Best-Maugard’s A Method of Creative Design, first published in 1926, systematizes various vanguard notions of the time into decorative, linear, at times quite witty configurations. His illustrations to the book––  “Curtains,” “Rosettes and Flowers,” or “Modern Surroundings,” for example––share many characteristics of Stettheimer’s treatment of the same themes, yet can hardly be considered a unique source. On the contrary: Stettheimer had acquired a thorough knowledge of the European art tradition during her years on the Continent; as a student abroad, she had commented on artists, art work and collections at considerable length and often with great astuteness in the pages of her diary. is stupid…” and declares Regnault’s Salome, now in the Metropolitan Museum, “an abomination.” She admires Manet and declares Monet’s “new Venice painting the most attractive things he has done so far.” Her reaction to Gustave Moreau’s work is measured. In 1913, she notes a very good loan show of van Gogh flowers.’]6 At the same time, she was well aware of the most advanced currents of the art of her own period, and was closely allied through friendship and mutual interest with the people who made it. The Stettheimers’ circle of friends included Marcel Duchamp, whose portrait Florine painted in 1923, Elie Nadelman, Albert Gleizes, Gaston Lachaise, William and Marguerite Zorach, and many others. Primitive and folk art seem to have played a role in the formation of the artist’s style as well––as did, perhaps, the elegant and incisive graphic stylishness of contemporary Vanity Fair cartoons. A comparison of Stettheimer’s Natatorium Undine of 1927 and Divers, Divers, a cartoon of the same year by the witty and feminine Fish, 7 gives some indication of just how far-ranging Stettheimer’s eye actually was.

Often, just when we think she is being her most naïvely “uninfluenced,” Stettheimer is in fact translating some recherché source into her own idiom. Such is the case with the Portrait of Myself of 1923, which draws upon the eccentric and visionary art of William Blake, whose reversal of natural scale, androgynous figure style and intensified drawing seem to have stirred a responsive chord in Stettheimer’s imagination. Blake’s illustration for his Song of Los, with the figure reclining weightlessly on a flower, seems to have been the prototype for Stettheimer’s memorable self-portrait, and indeed it had been published in Laurence Binyon’s Drawings and Engravings of William Blake in 1922. Certainly, the artist was conversant with the literature of art: “I think she must have read everything concerning art published in English, French and German…,” wrote her sister Ettie in the introduction to Florine’s posthumously published poems in 1949. 8

But as much as Stettheimer’s evolved style depends on resourceful borrowing and translation, even more does it depend, like all original styles, on a good deal of forceful rejection. In order to arrive at her own idiosyncratic language of form, she had to turn away not only from traditional formal values like those embodied in the academic nudes she painted around the turn of the century (while studying with Kenyon Cox at the Art Students’ League), but also those of modernist abstraction. In any case, no matter what its derivations or its novelties, Stettheimer’s style, at first glance, hardly seems an appropriate vehicle for the rhetoric of social message.


Nor do the subjects of many of the artist’s more ”documentary” works, like Studio Party of 1915 or Sunday Afternoon in the Country of 1917 seem to have that public character, that easy accessibility characteristic of a public art of social consciousness. The social character of these works is of a very private kind. The sitters are the privileged denizens of a most exclusive world, the world of the Stettheimers’ entertainments, soirées, and picnics. [pq]The Stettheimer style is gossamer light, highly artificed and complex; the iconography is refined, recondite and personal in its references.[/pq]In Studio Party, along with Florine herself, that world is seen to include the Lachaises, Albert Gleizes, Avery Hopwood, and Leo Stein; in Sunday Afternoon, those enjoying themselves in the elaborately cultivated garden of André Brook, the Stettheimers’ place in the country, are Marcel Duchamp, Edward Steichen, Adolph Bolm, the dancer, and Jo Davidson, the sculptor. And––an additional touch of aesthetic distancing––Stettheimer herself seems to have seen these gatherings as justified by her transformation of them into works of art. In a poem of about 1917, recorded in her diary and later published in the Crystal Flowers, she says: “Our Parties/ Our Picnics/ Our Banquets/ Our Friends/ Have at last––a raison d’être/ Seen in color and design/ It amuses me/ To recreate them/ To paint them.” 9

Indeed, far from looking like an art of social purpose, Stettheimer’s paintings seem as though they might best be considered an expression of Camp sensibility at its highest––the figures weightless, sinuous and androgynous; the settings unswervingly theatrical; the inherent populism or even vulgarity of some subjects, like Beauty Contest 10 of 1924 or Spring Sale at Bendel’s of 1922, mediated by a pictorial structure fantastically rococo, distanced by decorative reiteration. And Camp sensibility, defined by Susan Sontag in her seminal article of 1964 as “a certain mode of aestheticism,” of seeing the world in terms of a degree of artifice, of stylization 11 (a definition which serves admirably to sum up Stettheimer’s pictorial expression), is explicitly contrasted by Sontag with artistic attitudes of deep social concern and awareness. She sees Camp sensibility as opposing both the moralism of high culture and the tension between moral and aesthetic passion which she finds characteristic of avant-garde art; it is, in her phrase, “wholly aesthetic.” 12 “It goes without saying,” she asserts, “that the Camp sensibility is disengaged, depoliticized––or at least apolitical.” 13

Yet in insisting on the explicitly social impulse behind Stettheimer’s art while pointing out its overtly Camp qualities, I am not being merely paradoxical. Rather, it seems to me that events and shifts of ideological position in the more than 15 years since “Notes on ‘Camp'” appeared––above all, that striking redefinition of what is generally considered to be social and political in import rather than private or even aesthetic, a change effected largely by public and militant activism of blacks, women and gays (the very territory of Camp itself, from Prancing Nigger to the present)––have made us far more aware of an actively subversive component inherent to Camp sensibility itself. This subversiveness may be quite validly viewed as social or political commitment in its own right.

In 1980, there is justification for seeing Camp––in many ways a fiercer and more self-assured continuation of the half-petulant, half-parodic foot-stamping poses of fin-de-siècle Decadence––as a kind of permanent revolution of self-mocking sensibility against the strictures of a patriarchal tradition and the solemn, formalist teleology of vanguardism. This recent transformation of the ideological implications of Camp is itself a good reason for taking seriously a notion like that of the “social consciousness” of Stettheimer.


When we get down to looking at the artist and her work concretely and in detail, however, we might do better to view her reconciliation of social awareness and a highly wrought Camp vision of life as simply one of a number of paradoxes inherent to her nature and her situation. First of all, she was both an insider and an outsider: comfortably wealthy, a giver of parties, a friend of many interesting and famous people, but Jewish (and, as the pages of her diary reveal, very aware of it); and, although an artist, a very private artist, known only to a rather special group of admirers, and a woman artist at that. Secondly, she was a determined feminist, yet equally determined to be feminine in the most conventional sense of the term: her bedroom was a dream-construction of lace and cellophane, her clothing and demeanor lady-like; yet at the same time, she was capable of voicing in her poetry a quite outspoken and prickly antagonism towards male domination. One such poem, published in the posthumous volume of her verse, Crystal Flowers, is an ironic musing on models: “Must one have models/ must one have models forever/ nude ones/ draped ones/ costumed ones/ ‘The Blue Hat’/ ‘ The Yellow Shawl’/, ‘The Patent Leather Slippers’/ Possibly men painters really/ need them––they created them.” 14 Still another, titled “To a Gentleman Friend,” begins, quite startlingly: “You fooled me you little floating worm…”; 15 while another, more poignant and untitled, sums up bitterly the self-muting deception forced on women by the men who admire them: “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 a protection/ Against wear/ And tears/ And when/ I am rid of/ The Always-to-be-Stranger/ I turn on my light/ And become myself.” 16

Self-contradictions abound in the Stettheimer personality and outlook. She was a snob but an ardent New Dealer, a fanatic party-giver who in her diary complained of a particularly spectacular party given in her honor that “‘it was enough to make a socialist of any human being with a mind.” Some of these contradictory stances are admittedly trivial; others are less paradoxical than they seem. For a woman, for instance, the boundaries between subjective preoccupation and social awareness are by no means absolute; at times they effectively coincide. Then again, both the snob and the social activist share a highly developed sensitivity to the defining characteristics of class and milieu. And finally, and perhaps most important in separating apparent contradiction from the real variety, although Florine Stettheimer may  have gloried in artifice––that is to say, the authentic and deliberate creation of fantasy through suitably recondite means––she absolutely loathed phoniness, that pretentious public display of false feeling she associated with the high culture establishment. Two of the most significant poems in the Crystal Flowers make this distinction perfectly clear, and, at the same time, together, are a perfect paradigm of the loves and hates of Camp sensibility. On the one hand, “I hate Beethoven”: “Oh horrors!/ I hate Beethoven/ And I was brought up/ To revere him/ Adore him/ Oh horrors/ I hate Beethoven// I am hearing the/ 5th Symphony/ Led by Stokowsky/ It’s being done heroically/ Cheerfully pompous/ Insistently infallible/ It says assertively/ Ja-Ja-Ja-Ja/ /Jawohl––Jawohl/ Pflicht––!––Pflicht!/ Jawohl!/ Herrliche!/ Pflicht!/ Deutsche Pflicht/ Ja-Ja-Ja-Ja/ And heads nod/ In the German way/ Devoutly––/ affirmatively/   Oh––horrors.” 17

Pomposity, dutifulness, the heavy, automatic response to an implicitly patriarchal infallibility––such are the things which fill Florine Stettheimer with horror. What inspires her with delight is the very opposite of all that is heavy, dutiful, solemn, or imposed by authority; she articulates her loves in a hymn to lightness, lace, feminine sensibility and the goddess of it, her mother; a paean to the adored textures, sounds, and objets d’art of childhood: “And Things I loved––/ Mother in a low-cut dress/ Her neck like alabaster/ A laced up bodice of Veronese green/ A skirt all puffs of deeper shades/ With flounces of point lace/ Shawls of Blonde and Chantilly/ Fichues of Honeton and Point d’Esprit/ A silk jewel box painted with morning glories/ Filled with ropes of Roman pearls/ …Embroidered dresses of white Marseilles/ Adored sash of pale watered silk/ Ribbons with gay Roman stripes/ A carpet strewn with flower bouquets/ Sèvres vases and gilt console tables/ Mother reading us fairy tales/ When sick in bed with childhood ills––/ All loved and unforgettable thrills.” 18 Mother, lace and fairy tales belong to the cherished world of dream-artifice; Beethoven, German solemnity, and hollow affirmation to that of dreary falsehood: nowhere is she more forthright about the distinction.


With that distinction in mind, one might well raise some questions about conventional notions of an art of social concern itself, especially as these have recently been articulated in our own country. Must a public art of this kind be solemn, pompous and alienated? [pq]Stettheimer’s sitters are the privileged denizens of a most exclusive world—the world of her family’s entertainments, soirées and picnics.[/pq]Or can it, on the contrary, be personal, witty and satirical? Can one’s friends and family be seen as participants in history, and, conversely, can the major figures of history be envisioned as intimates, as part of one’s own experience? Is it possible for imagination and reality to converge in a lively, problematic image of contemporary society? Must history, in other words, be conceived of as something idealized, distant and dead that happened to other people, or is it something that involves the self? And what, precisely, are the boundaries between the public and the private? Why has such a distinction been made in the creation of art? All these issues are raised, although hardly resolved, by the art of Florine Stettheimer.

On the simplest level of historical awareness and politic conviction, there is Florine Stettheimer’s lifelong admiration for America and Americanness: her own kind of patriotism. Both West Point of 1917, now at the U.S. Military Academy, and New York of 1918, in the collection of Virgil Thomson, offer examples of it, warmed by the glow of the expatriate recently reunited with her birthplace––the Stettheimer sisters and their mother had returned to New York from Europe at the outbreak of World War I. West Point, commemorating a visit of August 29, 1917, is a pictorial record––a topographically accurate continuous narrative––of the Stettheimers’ trip to the Military Academy by Hudson Dayliner, by car, and on foot. The composition features the symbolic flag and eagle, and places George Washington––a lifelong idol of Florine’s and perhaps, as father of her country, an apotheosis of the missing Stettheimer père––at the heart of the composition in the form of a bronze copy of the 1853 Union Square equestrian portrait by Henry Kirke Brown (which had recently been obtained by Clarence P. Towne and dedicated in 1915). In New York, Washington plays a relatively minor role as a tinystatue in front of the Subtreasury, at the end of a long vista, but the painting is really an homage to another symbol of American grandeur: the Statue of Liberty. The painting, inspired by Woodrow Wilson’s visit to the Peace Conference of 1918, is minutely detailed, and the historic implications of the panorama are underscored by the palpability of the statue, built up in relief of putty impasto covered with gold leaf, so that, literally as well as figuratively, Liberty stands out. 19

Although Stettheimer can hardly be counted among the ranks of notable activists in the cause of racial equality, it is nevertheless true that black people figured quite regularly in her work, from the time of Jenny and Genevieve of about 1915 to that of Four Saints in Three Acts, the Gertrude Stein-Virgil Thomson opera for which she designed the sets and costumes in 1934. Her sympathy for black causes can, in addition, be inferred not merely from her work but from her close friendship with one of the staunchest supporters of black culture, the music critic, belle lettrist and bon vivant, Carl Van Vechten. One of the most ambitious and complex of all Florine Stettheimer’s social investigations of the ‘20s is devoted to a black environment, the segregated beach of Asbury Park South, now in the collection of Fisk University. The subject, which also inspired a poem, 20 may well have been suggested by Van Vechten, whose portrait she did in 1922, and who figures in the reviewing stand to the left in Asbury Park South. 21 An extraordinarily active promoter of black cultural interests, Van Vechten spent most of his free hours in Harlem literary salons and night clubs during the ‘20s. He loved and publicized jazz, which, he maintained in his capacity as a music critic in 1924, was “the only music of value produced in America.” The black writer James Weldon Johnson said in the early days of the Negro literary and artistic renaissance that Carl Van Vechten, by means of his personal efforts and his articles in journals, did more than anyone else in the country to forward it. Walter White, founder of the NAACP, was a close friend, as were literary figures like Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen and Zora Neale Hurston. In his later avatar as a photographer, Van Vechten created an extensive gallery of portraits of blacks prominent in the arts; he received an honorary doctorate in 1955 from Fisk University, to which he donated his collection of black musical literature and where he established the Florine Stettheimer Memorial Collection of Books on the Fine Arts.

The extent of Van Vechten’s involvement with black culture was noted in the pages of Vanity Fair in the form of a caricature of the music critic in blackface by his friend Covarrubias, the Mexican draftsman; and a popular song of about 1924, “Go Harlem,” advised its listeners to “go inspectin’ like Van Vechten.” Van Vechten’s parties were famous for their heady mixture of black and white celebrities; Bessie Smith might be found rubbing shoulders with Helena Rubinstein. Florine noted in the pages of her diary that she had met Paul Robeson and Somerset Maugham at one of Carl and Fania’s parties. 22 In 1926, Van Vechten published Nigger Heaven, a brilliant, poignant, unstereotyped and sexy novel about various social circles in Harlem, in which the author reveals the richness and authenticity of black culture and, at the same time, the tragedy that might ensue for the more educated members of Harlem society when they tried to enter the white world. 23 Van Vechten dedicated this work to the Stettheimer sisters, and Florine thanked him for her copy with a poem: “Darling Moses// Your Black Chillun/ Are floundering/ In the sea// Gentle Moses// The waves don’t part/ To let us Travel free// Holy Moses// Lead us on/ To Happyland/ We’ll follow/ Thee// Dear Carlo, this is to you in admiration of your courage. Florine, West End, August 1st, 1926.” 24

The impact of Van Vechten’s passion for all aspects of black cultural expression was felt not only by Florine but also by his friend, Covarrubias, whose impressions of nightlife in Harlem appeared in Vanity Fair in the ‘20s and were published as Negro Drawings in 1927. Certainly, these drawings offer stylistic parallels to the figure style of Asbury Park South in their sinuous compression and simplification of form, which Parker Tyler, in the case of Stettheimer’s painting, has likened to paleolithic art or Rhodesian rock painting. 25 We may feel that works such as Covarrubias’s or Stettheimer’s are demeaning or caricatural, but at the time, they were viewed by both blacks and whites as homages to black elegance, grace and energy. 26 Florine’s vision of blacks––campy, satirical, and admiring at once, idiosyncratic, clearly a vision of high life and high times rather than of a worthy but unjustly treated proletariat––is very different from the blander ideal of the benign melting pot, which informs the iconography of a work like Lucienne Bloch’s mural The Cycle of a Woman’s Life, completed for the New York Women’s House of Detention in 1936 under the New Deal. In some ways, Florine Stettheimer’s vision is closer to today’s sensibility in the way it stresses racial uniqueness and self-identification rather than brotherhood at the expense of authentic ethnicity. But here again, the issue of public versus private expression comes into question: Stettheimer’s work is intended for a relatively restricted and, of course, voluntary audience. It does not preach or offer solace. The other is meant for a public place––a prison at that––and is therefore fated to uplift and to promulgate a consoling mythology.


But perhaps the most consistent and ambitious expressions of Stettheimer’s social consciousness are the four Cathedrals, a series that engaged her intermittently from approximately 1929 until her death in 1944. All of them are in the Metropolitan Museum; [pq]Why must socially conscious art be solemn, pompous and alienated? Why can’t it, like the work of Stettheimer, be personal, witty and satirical?[/pq]all are large-scale––about 60 by 50 inches––and packed with incident. In these, her masterpieces, she ingeniously and inextricably mingles the realms of reality and fantasy, observation and invention. The Cathedrals are grand, secular shrines dedicated to the celebration of American life, as exemplified in its most cosmopolitan, expansive, yet for Stettheimer, most intimately known city––New York. She subdivides this celebration of urban excitements into four major categories: the world of theater and film in the case of Cathedrals of Broadway, ca. 1929; the world of shops and high society in Cathedrals of Fifth Avenue, ca. 1931; the world of money and politics in Cathedrals of Wall Street ca. 1939; and finally, the world of art––her own particular world within New York––in the unfinished Cathedrals of Art. The compositions are centralized and hieratic, as befits secular icons presided over by contemporary cult figures, yet this centralization is never ponderous or static, but, on the contrary, airy and mobile, energized by fluid, swirling rhythms, animated by a weightless, breezy sort of dynamism. The iconography of the Cathedrals is both serious and lightheartedly outrageous, giving evidence of the artist’s view that admiration and social criticism are far from mutually exclusive. The color is sparkling, the drawing soft and crackling at the same time. Each Cathedral, in addition to celebrating a permanent aspect of New York life, at the same time commemorates a particular event––in the case of Cathedrals of Broadway, for instance, the shift from silent films to talkies. In the center, golden Silence is roped off beneath a newsreel-gray image of Jimmy Walker opening the New York baseball season, while the blazing marquees of the Strand and the Roxy to left and right proclaim the advent of the talking film. The Cathedrals of Fifth Avenue, besides celebrating a society wedding and the glories of Hudnut’s, Tiffany’s, B. Altman’s, Maillard’s and Delmonico’s, is also a commemoration of Lindbergh’s flight––the hero can be seen parading in an open car in the background to the left. In all of the Cathedrals, Florine, her sisters and her interesting friends figure prominently; they are part of New York’s ongoing life, participants in historic occasions. In the Cathedrals of Fifth Avenue, for instance, above the hood of the car decorated with a dollar sign on the right, appear the artist and her sisters; between the family group and the wedding party are Charles Demuth, with Mrs. Valentine Dudensing and her daughter in front of him and Muriel Draper leaning on Max Ewing to his left. Arnold Genthe is photographing the ceremony, and Mrs. Walter Rosen stands next to him in yellow. 27

Florine’s celebration of her city finds close parallels, once more, in her poetry. Not only do several poems explicitly deal with the varied joys of the city, but in one untitled work the very brand-name explicitness of that loving celebration is reiterated: “My attitude is one of Love/ is all adoration/ for all the fringes/ all the color/ all tinsel creation/ I like slippers gold/ I like oysters cold/ and my garden of mixed flowers/ and the sky full of towers/ and traffic in the streets/ and Maillard’s sweets/ and Bendel’s clothes/ and Nat Lewis hose/ and Tappé’s window arrays/ and crystal fixtures/ and my pictures/ and Walt Disney cartoons/ and colored balloons.” 28

Yet the Cathedrals depend upon more than mere affection and a sense of personal participation for their striking unity of feeling and design. Their complex yet highly readable structure may, indeed, strike a familiar chord. Despite basic differences of attitude too deep to go into, there is a strange and, as it were, distilled reminiscence of the murals of Diego Rivera in these works. A comparison with the revolutionary murals of the Mexican artist may seem farfetched or even perverse; nevertheless, the Ministry of Education frescoes in Mexico City were published in this country in 1929, 29 the year of the earliest of the Cathedral paintings, and certain common features may be observed to exist in Rivera’s The Billionaires or his Song of the Revolution and Stettheimer’s Cathedrals of Broadway or Cathedrals of Wall Street. It might also be kept in mind that both Stettheimer and Rivera had made extensive art-tours of Europe and had returned to their native lands thoroughly familiar with both traditional European artistic culture and the new pictorial experiments of the avant-garde. Both were highly responsive to the popular culture and folk art of their own nations. Both regarded their native lands with critical and loving eyes, and both felt free, for the purposes of their message––and because both folk and vanguard art encouraged it––to incorporate verbal elements into the pictorial fabric of their works, a procedure which Stettheimer plays to the hilt in Cathedrals of Fifth Avenue, where “Tiffany’s” is spelled out in jewels, “Altman’s” in household furnishings and drygoods.


The third of the series, Cathedrals of Wall Street, signed and dated 1939 but probably finished after that date, is worth studying in considerable detail, partly because a good deal of material relating to its genesis is available, partly because it unites in a single, scintillating image so many of Stettheimer’s responses to the social issues of her time, as well as her political commitments––in her own terms, of course. In Wall Street Big Business confronts popular pageantry; the historic past confronts contemporary American life; her beloved New York shelters the major representatives of her equally beloved New Deal. The painting then is a satiric icon––almost Byzantine in its symmetry, frontality, and golden effulgence––but an icon up-to-date and jazzy in its staccato rhythms and concrete detail; presiding over this icon are the Father, Son and Holy Ghost of a patriotic Trinity: Washington, Roosevelt and the American Eagle.

Cathedrals of Wall Street is an homage to Mrs. Roosevelt, elegant in an Eleanor-blue gown in the center of the piece. She is escorted by Mayor La Guardia, and is about to be thrilled by “The Star-Spangled Banner” intoned by Grace Moore, who stands to the right center. Among the other identified figures are Michael Ericson in an American Legion uniform, Michael J. Sullivan, a Civil War veteran, Claget Wilson, and an Indian chief. 30 Yet perhaps primarily, Cathedrals of Wall Street is dedicated to the memory of George Washington; the artist herself is depicted offering his statue a bouquet inscribed “To George Washington from Florine St.” at the far right. Stettheimer’s affection for the father of her country was longstanding, going back at least as far as the outbreak of World War I. The sitting room in her Beaux-Arts apartment included a bust of Washington enshrined in a niche. The pages of her diary make reverent reference to painting the figure of Washington in Cathedrals of Wall Street on the anniversary of his birth. She notes: “Feb. 22. Washington’s Day 1939––I put lots of gold on Washington”; on February 22, 1940: “‘Washington’s day––Painted all day––Washington in the painting.”

As far as the Roosevelts were concerned, her affections, though of more recent vintage, were not less fervent. Evidently, she wanted Van Vechten to introduce her to Mrs. Roosevelt because she so admired her, and of course, wished to put her into her painting, but Van Vechten evidently did not know the First Lady. 31 Florine was an ardent supporter of FDR. In her diary she notes: “Nov. Fifth 1940––Have just registered my vote for Roosevelt;” on the 6th: “I took off my tel. receiver at seven A.M.––’Roosevelt’ said the voice instead of ‘good morning'”; on January 2, 1941: “Inauguration Day––Thank goodness it came off––heard oath and speech…” On Oct. 24, 1940, she had noted with dismay: “McBride and Clagg [Claggett Wilson] for Wilkie oh horrors! Showed them Cathedrals of Wall Street and Clagg in marine uniform in it.

The date inscribed on the painting suggests still further and even more concrete memorial connections. Nineteen-thirty-nine was the year dedicated to celebrating the 150th anniversary of George Washington’s inauguration in New York. In George Washington in New York, a far less ambitious work which, done in the same year, may well be related to Cathedrals of Wall Street, Stettheimer makes her point by simply juxtaposing a bust of George with the New York skyline. The inauguration had taken place just where she set her Wall Street painting, on the steps of the old Subtreasury Building, then Federal Hall, at Wall and Nassau Streets, a site marked by John Quincy Adams Ward’s 1883 bronze statue of Washington, so prominently featured in the painting. The major civic event of 1939, the New York World’s Fair, like Cathedrals of Wall Street, was planned to commemorate this momentous occasion, and, like the painting, was intended as a tribute to the father of our country, as the cover of the special “World’s Fair Supplement” to the New York Times Magazine clearly indicates.

The first diary notations about Cathedrals of Wall Street occur in 1938, when plans for various First Inaugural commemorations, and, of course, the New York World’s Fair, the biggest celebration of Washington’s inauguration, were well under way. On April 18 of that year, Florine makes reference to putting Grace Moore singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” into Wall Street, and to meeting the celebrated singer at Rose Laird’s beauty salon. On April 19, she notes: “Started to stain the outlines of my new painting ‘Cathedrals of Wall Street.'” She was evidently still working on it well into 1940, when, according to notations in her diary, she went to visit the Stock Exchange and had her friend, the lawyer Joseph Solomon, bring her ticker tape to copy. The date 1939 inscribed on the painting, then, refers to the event it commemorates rather than the year the painting was actually completed.


All during the period preceding the inauguration celebrations, sources of inspiration for the artist’s project offered themselves in the press. For example although it is not specifically related to the Washington festivities themselves, a major illustrated article by Elliot V. Bell titled “What is Wall Street?” which ran in The New York Times of January 2, 1938, almost sounds like a description of the subject and setting of Stettheimer’s painting. The writer discusses the new focus of attention which has shifted to Wall Street in order to counteract the business depression, and includes what might be considered a verbal equivalent of major features of the canvas: “The geographical center of the district lies at the intersection where Broad Street ends and Nassau Street begins. Here on one corner stands the Stock Exchange, on another J. P. Morgan’s and on a third the outmoded temple of the old United States Subtreasury upon which the statue of George Washington stands with lifted hand to mark the site where the first President on April 30, 1789, took the oath of office…” often take their stand outside the Bankers’ Trust at the corner of Wall and Nassau Streets, exhorting the noon-time crowds of clerks and office boys to forsake Mammon and return to God…” in roughly the same spot that Stettheimer placed her Salvation Army “Glory Hole.”’]32 On April 30, 1938, the New York Times ran an illustrated account of “A Patriotic Ceremony in Wall Street,” subtitled “A view of the exercises in front of the Subtreasury Building yesterday commemorating the inauguration of George Washington as the first President of the United States.” The report went on to describe the representatives of many patriotic organizations, military and naval groups with their massed colors which had joined the previous day in commemorating the first inauguration, which had taken place 149 years ago; the accompanying photograph is remarkably similar to the right-hand portion of Stettheimer’s painting. 33

In April of the following year, 1939, the 150th anniversary of the occasion, an eight-day reenactment of Washington’s celebrated trip from Mount Vernon to New York took place, with the participants decked out in eighteenth-century costume, traveling from Virginia to New York in a 160-year-old coach and crossing from New Jersey to Manhattan by barge. On April 30, Inauguration Day itself, there was a ceremony in front of Federal Hall during which wreaths like the ones in Stettheimer’s painting were reverently laid at the feet of Washington’s statue; all the patriotic societies paraded, and, according to the New York Times report, “the nearly empty financial district . . . echoed and reechoed the blaring music of military bands.” 34 Denys Wortman, an artist and cartoonist who took the part of Washington, was received by Mayor LaGuardia at City Hall. 35

None of these celebrations could, however, match in elaborateness or scale the climactic event of the eight-day journey––the reenactment of the First Inaugural. The reconstructed ceremony took place beneath the colossal 68-foot-high statue of the Father of Our Country on Constitution Mall as part of the opening-day festivities on April 30 of the New York World’s Fair; Denys Wortman and his costumed entourage were whisked from Manhattan to Flushing Meadows by speedboat for the occasion. 36

All these events must have struck an answering spark in the breast of someone who admired Washington as much as Florine Stettheimer did, and many of the reports and announcements of these happenings were illustrated with drawings and photographs which may well have added fuel to the fire. One can imagine Stettheimer’s enthusiasm for a commemoration which united her favorite historic personage with her favorite contemporary entertainment––George Washington with the World’s Fair. And she adored the Fair, visited it almost daily during the spring and summer of 1939, and, according to her sister Ettie, hoped to be asked to commemorate it in her art, a hope which remained unfulfilled. Cathedrals of Wall Street must then serve by proxy as her pictorial tribute to the exuberance and optimism––alas, ill-founded––with which the Fair approached the future.

At the same time, Cathedrals of Wall Street hardly seems to call down unmixed blessings on the present-day Republic. [pq]”Cathedrals of Art” is about the inextricable connection between public and private, about the friends Stettheimer cherished and the art to which they dedicated their lives.[/pq]George Washington seems a bit startled by the presence of Bernard Baruch, John D. Rockefeller, and J. P. Morgan in the pediment of the Stock Exchange. The ubiquity of gold seems to have more than Byzantine implications; it impinges on the very rays of light infiltrating the floor of the Exchange. And the juxtaposition of Salvation Army and Stock Exchange offers a trenchant pictorial paraphrase of George Bernard Shaw’s pointed question from the end of Major Barbara: “What price salvation?” Washington is both the guardian of and admittedly a bit peripheral to the modern world of drum majorettes and high finance.


Stettheimer’s final work in the Cathedrals series celebrates that aspect of New York achievement with which she was most intimately connected––the world of art. Cathedrals of Art, dated 1942 but left unfinished at the time of her death in 1944, is her ultimate pictorial statement about the inextricable connection between public and private, between the friends she cherished and the works of art to which they dedicated their lives. The grand, three-part setting, dominated by the red-carpeted main staircase of the old Metropolitan Museum, clearly distinguishes art in America, the province of The Museum of Modern Art, from American art, the realm of the Whitney Museum, with the Metropolitan Museum itself providing that overarching tradition which––spatially as well as chronologically––lies behind both. On the crossbar of the stretcher, in 1941, Florine identified the work as “Our Dawn of Art.” And indeed, in the foreground, baby Art––based on a recently acquired statue of Eros, depicted here as born drawing––is being photographed by George Platt Lynes in a blaze of light, while being worshiped by a female art-lover to his right. 37 Baby Art ascends the stairs, hand-in-hand with the Metropolitan’s director, Francis Henry Taylor, to join curator of paintings Harry B. Wehle, standing at the top of the stairs with a young woman holding a clearly-labeled “prize.” The red-carpeted staircase is flanked by museum directors, critics and art dealers; perhaps a certain reminiscence of Raphael’s School of Athens gives added resonance to the composition. Among the art-world notables present are Alfred Stieglitz on the staircase to the left, grandly cloaked and turning his profile upward to follow youthful Art’s progress; A. Everett (Chick) Austin Jr., the enterprising director of the Wadsworth Atheneum, standing with folded arms at the base of the left-hand column inscribed “Art in America”; his counterpart at the base of the right-hand column, inscribed “American Art,” is Stettheimer’s friend and supporter, the critic Henry McBride, with “Stop” and “Go” signs in his hand.

In the center of the composition, Francis Henry Taylor leads the infant to the High Altar of the Cathedral of Art in the form of a portrait, perhaps reminiscent of Mrs. Stettheimer, by one of the artists whom Florine most admired, Frans Hals. This sedate and portly figure from the past is set in opposition to a sprightly and up-to-date young female figure, also directly on central axis, labeled “cocktail dress”––perhaps meant to represent the modern feminine ideal as opposed to the more traditional one.’ 38

In the left-hand “panel” of what might well be considered a triptych, Art plays hopscotch on a Mondrian laid out at the feet of Alfred Barr Jr., seated most appropriately in what looks like a Corbusier chair before two striking Picassos. Immediately beneath Barr, the two Women on the Beach break loose from their canvas in front of the Douanier Rousseau’s lion. In the upper part of the right-hand “panel,” dedicated to the Whitney Museum, stands Juliana Force in front of a sculptured figure by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, guarded by an American eagle. To the lower right and lower left foreground, isolated by a screen and a white-and-gold lily-topped canopy respectively, stand Robert Locher (an old friend), and Stettheimer herself, as compère and commère of the spectacle––an idea, incidentally, that the artist probably derived from Four Saints in Three Acts. The two figure as patron saints or intercessors between the world of art and its audience. Cathedrals of Art, then, is not only a tribute to art but to New York’s art institutions and to the people who run them. The only other painting about art that is as original in both its richness of allusion and its sense of intimate personal involvement is of course Courbet’s Painter’s Studio. Like Courbet’s Studio, Cathedrals of Art is an “allégorie réelle,” an allegory that takes its terms from experienced reality, and as such, like Courbet’s work, it emphasizes the role of friendship, of mutual support and of contemporary inventiveness in sustaining a living art.

In “Public Use of Art,” an important article which appeared in Art Front in 1936, Meyer Schapiro inveighed against the public murals of the New Deal, seeing in “their seemingly neutral glorification of work, progress and national history the instruments of a class” ––the dominating class of the nation. “The conceptions of such mural paintings,” Schapiro maintained, “rooted in naïve, sentimental ideas of social reality, cannot help betray the utmost banality and poverty of invention.” 39 While one may feel that Schapiro is too sweeping in his condemnation of the public art of his day, and that Stettheimer’s playful, and in many ways, arcane creations hardly offer a totally viable alternative to the mural programs sponsored under the New Deal, his criticism is nevertheless relevant to Stettheimer’s art. Her ideas of social reality, if idiosyncratic, are neither naïve nor sentimental, her pictorial invention the opposite of “banal” or “poor.” Nor is her vision, in Cathedrals of Art, totally affirmative.

Beneath the glowing admiration for American institutions and personae in this work, as in the other paintings of the Cathedrals series, exists a pointed and knowing critique of them as well. The Cathedrals, as I have indicated, are by no means pure affirmations of American, or even New York, values. The most effective revelations of social reality are not necessarily either intentional or from the left, as both Engels and Georg Lukács have reminded us. Balzac, upholder of monarchy, was in fact the most acute and critical analyst of the social reality of his time. Look again at Wall Street; or look again at the Cathedrals of Art, with each little chieftain smugly ensconced in his or her domain, the dealers feverishly waving their artists’ balloons or clutching their wares, the critic with his mechanical signals, the avid photographers––and the blinded, worshipful public.

Florine Stettheimer, the artist, existed in this world, it is true, but still somewhat apart from it––as her painting exists apart from the major currents of her time. She knew herself to be, as an artist, a peripheral if cherished figure, unappreciated and unbought by the broader public. She may indeed, in her discreet way, have felt rather bitter about this larger neglect. After a disastrous exhibition at Knoedler’s in 1916, although she would often show a work or two at group shows at the Whitney, the Carnegie Institute or the Society of Independent Artists, she never had a major retrospective until 1946, after her death. 40

In a poem from Crystal Flowers, Stettheimer succinctly sums up the position of art in a capitalist society: “Art is spelled with a capital A/ And capital also backs it/ Ignorance also makes it sway/ The chief thing is to make it pay/ In a quite dizzy way/ Hurrah––Hurrah––.” 41 Here, certainly, is social consciousness about art if ever there was.