Florine Stettheimer’s work reflects both the wealth that helped make her part of New York’s cultural elite and the interwar era’s conflicts over the meaning of American identity.
NEITHER FRANZ KAFKA nor Louis-Ferdinand Céline had extensive experience in the United States, yet both wrote novels set wholly or in part in the land of opportunity. In 1932’s Journey to the End of the Night, Céline limns New York’s “gold district,” aka Manhattan, which the narrator-hero, Bardamu, fancifully maintains can be entered only on foot, “like a church.” “It’s a district filled with gold, a miracle, and through the doors you can actually hear the miracle, the sound of dollars being crumpled, for the Dollar is always too light, a genuine Holy Ghost, more precious than blood.” 1 This eerie concatenation of capitalism, architecture, and human ambition resembles the earlier surreal landscapes of Kafka’s Amerika (The Man Who Disappeared), written 1911–14 and published posthumously in 1927. Yet, there is a haunted and perhaps more vicious mood circulating in Amerika’s bizarro USA: The Statue of Liberty, for example, holds a sword instead of a torch, and “unchained winds” blow around her. “One couldn’t look for pity here,” the protagonist, Karl Rossmann, reflects of this port city of “haste, precision, clarity of representation.” 2
While hyperbolic and rife with allegory, these portrayals of pre-World War II New York are weirdly accurate. Or, rather, it is their use of hyperbole and allegory that makes them accurate. Modern New York is a place one can see even without seeing it with one’s own two eyes, given the long-range power of media. The city really is the dream of skyscrapers, big bucks, and mobility dangled before the exploitable immigrant, which also makes it something of a nightmare. And these novelizations, dreamed and fantasized and pasted together from others’ accounts, resemble, tonally and rhetorically, nothing in the visual arts of their time so much as the paintings of Florine Stettheimer (1871–1944), who, as a Jazz Age socialite and actual resident of the US, would seem to have little in common with either the clerklike Kafka or war veteran and later anti-Semite Céline. Yet both authors are uncharacteristically comic, even zany, when it comes to American tableaux. It is, for example, possible to compare Amerika’s Nature Theater of Oklahoma, a massive imaginary entertainment operation that ostensibly hires all comers, to Stettheimer’s canvases, which are likewise anomalous sites of performance, often depicting large casts of figures. In their detail, excess, and carefully deployed allegorical systems, Stettheimer’s paintings depict an era of conservative nationalism and roaring decadence, a contradictory cultural and political amalgam that looks ever more familiar.
STETTHEIMER BECAME an American late. Though she was born in Rochester, New York, she lived somewhat less than half her life within her country of origin. In an early instance of the mix of extreme privilege and social uncertainty that would define her life, Florine, along with her four siblings, was whisked off to Germany as a young child after her father abandoned the family. It is not known whether her mother, Rosetta Walter Stettheimer, was aiming to save face or cash, or both. 3 The result was a childhood like an extended vacation. Florine briefly returned to the US in the 1890s, to study at the Art Students League, the first school in New York to permit female students to make drawings from nude models. She was otherwise in Vienna and Paris and other places European, often in the company of her chic sisters, Ettie and Carrie. There were performances of the Ballets Russes, discussions of the vitalism of Henri Bergson, careful examinations of canonical Continental paintings. Then, with the outbreak of the Great War, the Stettheimers decamped to New York, which became a permanent home. Florine Stettheimer would leave the US only once thereafter, to vacation in Canada. In 1914 she was forty-three, with an impressive education but no career.
Most critics of Stettheimer’s multiform body of work—which includes poetry, furniture, and stage sets, along with her complex paintings—have a tendency to cast their essays as close readings of the artist’s social calendar. 4 These treatments have mainly taken the paintings as portrayals of, and decorative backdrops for, Stettheimer’s interactions with Marcel Duchamp (who may have modeled Rrose Sélavy on her), Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe, Elie Nadelman, Gertrude Stein, and Carl Van Vechten, among other celebrities, some of whom, like best-selling author Joseph Hergesheimer, were more renowned in their own day than they are now. With recourse to her archives at Columbia and Yale, Stettheimer’s careful readers have disclosed her uptown avant-garde coterie. She is understood to have led a life of comfort and leisure, if of questionable romantic and professional fulfillment. The contradictions were many, but increasing quantities of family money seem to have made them more interesting than tragic. (By the time Florine, Ettie, Carrie, and Rosetta Stettheimer resettled in New York, they were apparently quite financially secure.)
Starting around 1918, Stettheimer entered her mature period. She stopped painting post-Impressionist mediocrities and got weird. She festooned her studio with cellophane and Victorian lace. She gilded liberally, filling her canvases with lithe little bodies en pointe. She was at once a consummate Continental decadent and a patriotic American modern—a hyper-feminine late bloomer and visionary, the ultimate outsider-insider. She became a satirist of artistically inclined upper classes, as well as a depicter of nationalist pageantry. She was not a bad poet. She showed infrequently and was nearly forgotten after her death. 5 Andy Warhol got a private viewing of her work in 1961 from a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Though professing his “love” in his memoir POPism, Warhol was not above dubbing his forebear a “wealthy primitive painter.” 6
There is, to be frank, often something of a letdown when it comes to Stettheimer’s reception. Wanda Corn and Michael Leja—two art historians who have, to their credit, shown a greater tolerance than most for the minutiae of the interwar period in the US—have little to say about her. Yet, as New York Times art critic Roberta Smith observes in her review of the current one-woman show at the Jewish Museum, “Every 20 years or so an exhibition devoted to Florine Stettheimer . . . shakes up modernism’s orderly hierarchies.” 7 This latest survey, “Florine Stettheimer: Painting Poetry,” suffers somewhat from a cramped, windowless setting. Stettheimer’s four late masterpieces, her “Cathedrals” series of 1929–42, in the permanent collection of the nearby Metropolitan Museum of Art, are not included, meaning that it is all but impossible to comprehend Stettheimer’s enormous achievement as a painter by way of the show. Without the “Cathedrals” as zenith, the exhibition culminates uncertainly in maquettes, publicity headshots, and barely legible snippets of film related to Four Saints in Three Acts, a 1934 avant-garde opera, featuring an entirely African American cast, with libretto by Gertrude Stein and score by Virgil Thomson. Stettheimer designed iridescent cellophane scenery and feathered and sequined costumes for the show, making something of a splash. 8
The catalogue for “Painting Poetry” hardly mitigates the disappointment. Even given the dearth of popular writing on Stettheimer that is not a rehashing of Linda Nochlin’s 1980 tour de force in this magazine, the two workmanlike essays by Stephen Brown and Georgiana Uhlyarik are lamentable. (Uhlyarik, for example, resorts to such platitudes as, “Stettheimer painted herself into an art history of her own making, informed by a long classical tradition and activated by a vanguard attitude.” 9 ) A subsequent coda-like transcript of a roundtable discussion among contemporary painters rehearses the usual terms in which Stettheimer is praised. 10 Overall, this lackluster if jauntily packaged retrospective, with its anodyne title and incomplete trajectory, deviates little from the boom-bust cycle Smith describes.
IF WE WANT TO grapple more seriously with Florine Stettheimer, it is worth returning to Kafka and Céline’s unreal depictions of the US. We could well think of Stettheimer on similar terms: as an artist who treated America as an exotic, largely unknowable locale and who used the space of fantasy and escapism this orientation opened up as a source of inspiration, improvising at will. This way of looking at Stettheimer may not endear her to contemporary American audiences, who seem to enjoy her work mainly for its flowers, stars, large-eyed maidens, and ubiquitous crystalline frills. However, highlighting Stettheimer’s interest in allegory and appropriation helps to explain such apparently contradictory impulses as her life-long fascination with the figure of the faun as portrayed by Vaslav Nijinsky in his famous choreography for L’Après-midi d’un faune, a ballet based on a Stéphane Mallarmé poem with a score by Claude Debussy, and her equally powerful obsession with the far less sensuous George Washington, to whom she dedicated an entire shrinelike room in her Bryant Park studio and who repeatedly appears in her paintings. 11 From the intently researched exoticism of contemporary designers Léon Bakst, who created sets and costumes for the Ballets Russes, and Paul Poiret, the celebrity couturier who in 1911 held a “Thousand and Second Night” fancy-dress soirée, Stettheimer learned the power of orientalist pastiche.
Critics often note the impact Nijinsky’s June 8, 1912, Paris performance of L’Après-midi d’un faune made on Stettheimer. She immediately began sketching costumes and scenery for her own ballet, the story of a well-heeled father-daughter duo who are accosted by art students and compelled to don Bakstian/Poiretian garb and begin dancing. Though the ballet, L’Orphée des Quat-z-arts, whose title cites an annual Parisian ball, was never staged, Stettheimer’s mock-ups evidence rapt work, including collaged fabric and beading. This early undertaking is usually seen as a sign of the talent that would be more concretely manifested in Stettheimer’s designs for Four Saints in Three Acts. L’Orphée might also be read as an indication of Stettheimer’s fashionable equation of personal liberation with the assumption of non-European dress; the clothing of the art students points to a generalized East, in which the constraints of Western society are imagined not to apply. Indeed, in one of the very few extant photographs of Stettheimer, taken ca. 1917–20 in her Bryant Park garden, she wears a matching set of billowing pantaloons and embroidered white tunic. Stettheimer’s garments are even more loosely cut than Poiret’s iconic “lampshade” tunic ensemble, but the association is unmistakable and incorporates another trend in which Poiret also participated: deliverance from the corset.
Stettheimer thus favored an eccentric exoticism—one in which fauns, George Washingtons, and other stock figures were caricatured and fetishized—over related contemporaneous avant-garde movements, even as she maintained a rather straightforward relationship to the sensuality of paint. The academically trained and always elaborately decorative Stettheimer was, for example, never fully taken with Dada’s sardonic anti-art. The Stettheimer sisters’ liking for puckish Duchamp, aka “Duche,” their sometime French teacher, occasionally took a turn for the patronizing, as when Ettie Stettheimer referred to him as a “charming garçon” or the “queer but charming French boy who painted ‘Nude Descending the Stairs’ and other cubistic creations.” 12 Meanwhile, the uncanny imagery and narrative ruptures of Surrealism never caught on with Florine, nor did the movement engage the materiality of paint as much as she might have liked, though comparisons to Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo are hardly out of place. For Stettheimer did not just daub, she built her faux-naive pictures with an artfully wielded palette knife (which is why it is remarkable that her substantial canvases sometimes look like finely delineated New Yorker covers in reproduction). Stettheimer has also been said to have roots in the European Symbolist tradition, and there are clear parallels between her work and the oneiric images of Odilon Redon, for example. However, to the synthesis of the symbol she clearly preferred the ambivalence and deferral associated with allegory, the effect produced when a thing in a picture does not represent that thing, purely or exclusively, but rather points to something else. 13 This current runs so strongly through her work that the very fact that it has not been clearly elaborated by Stettheimer’s critics suggests that the artist’s failure to fully “appear” within either the canon or major American museums may be due as much to this omission as to the artist’s gender. For it is difficult to understand or, for that matter, see Florine Stettheimer, without examining her allegorical depictions of America.
An important political fact of the era during which Stettheimer resettled in New York was the increasing prevalence of attempts to define American identity, as well as domestic policy, with recourse to types and categorization. The use of statistics by the government during the Progressive Era, while ostensibly indicative of a turn to objectivity, was also linked to attempts to limit access to US citizenship and the protections it entails, as well as to jobs, reproductive rights, freedom of movement, and so on. The rise of “race science” in mainstream academia in the teens drove a wave of popular white supremacist publications that claimed empiricist authority, including books like amateur anthropologist and anti-immigration activist Madison Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race of 1916. While the US had maintained a policy of relatively open borders until the late nineteenth century, in 1917 the Asiatic Barred Zone Act expanded California’s anti-Chinese restrictions of the 1870s and national anti-Chinese restrictions of [pq]Stettheimer’s mature works recognize the racial and ethnic divisions of American society with an outsider’s clarity, even as they participate in the reduction of nonwhites to stock types.[/pq]1882, identifying a large portion of Asia as the source of unwanted immigrants, who were to be banned along with idiots, illiterates, anarchists, et al. This was followed by the Emergency Quota Act of 1921 and the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924, which restricted immigration from most parts of the world. Though Stettheimer was born in America, she was raised a European. Her status as a native daughter who had to become American in middle age was, in itself, a challenge to the essentialism of nativist views. However, Stettheimer brought with her a European eye for Asian and Middle Eastern art and design. Painted in the midst of the developments enumerated above, her first mature works recognize the racial and ethnic divisions of American society with an outsider’s clarity, even as they participate in the reduction of nonwhites to stock types. At times her use of cliché and stereotypes can appear merely fey or decorative, since these types are obviously not intended to be realistic; yet it is worth examining how her work both resists and conforms to conservative currents of her day.
STETTHEIMER’S New York/Liberty (1918–19) is an early example of the technique for superimposing diverse historical and personal events that Duchamp later termed multiplication virtuelle, a technique that inscribes multiple, discrete meanings into a single image. 14 Depicting battleships in New York harbor, New York/Liberty layers manifold times, tacitly commemorating Stettheimer’s 1914 repatriation into the port of New York, even as it more overtly indicates America’s late May 1917 entry into WWI and President Wilson’s subsequent voyage to the 1919 the International Peace Conference. 15 Though ostensibly about victory and American exceptionalism, Stettheimer’s composition seems designed to be read as an allegory for immigration and assimilation under the American flag (clearly pivotal processes for Stettheimer) as its vantage point is from on board a ship that, as indicated by a thickly gilded Statue of Liberty, is located near Ellis Island.
The Manhattan cityscape that dominates the top half of the canvas functions as a painting within a painting. A bit like a birthday cake, parade float, or theatrical backdrop, this seductively vulnerable skyline justifies the guns mustered to protect it. Like the red, white, and blue banners employed throughout the scene, it signifies both power and peace. Despite its consummate charm, the city appears secondary to the enlarged seal of New York City occupying the bottom margin. Featuring a pair of allegorical figures, this doubly significant seal is a supposedly collective image, an icon for the municipality. But it has been personalized and privately “stamped” by Citizen Stettheimer, who as a woman did not have the right to vote in 1918. The Dutchman, no hardened colonist, possibly an early twentieth-century Dutch naval officer, is jaunty with ribbons. Meanwhile, the Native American employs a union shield as a bizarre breechcloth, while wearing a flag-themed headdress. Stettheimer’s revision of New York City’s social compact suggests, in a strange softening of the US’s new 1917 exclusivity, that Lady Liberty lifts her lamp for all those who resemble Broadway extras. As do Kafka and Céline’s novels, New York/Liberty complicates the utopian fantasy of a newly arrived immigrant. It presents an Oz-like America seen, gleefully and somewhat ignorantly, from the exterior, an advertisement for a theatrical production full of esoteric, and perhaps ultimately inaccessible, cheer.
In the late 1910s and early ’20s, Stettheimer’s paintings become increasingly social, and the miniaturization of compositional elements explored in New York/Liberty and other paintings like Picnic at Bedford Hills (1918) predominates. Beauty Contest: To the Memory of P.T. Barnum (1924) shows a more complex and less ambivalent response to the question of American identity, filtering its visible forms through a beauty contest reimagined as a hybrid event incorporating a circus. Stettheimer presents a pageant of human types watched over by recognizable individuals, including herself at upper left, smiling and well made up, next to writer Edna Kenton and photographer Edward Steichen. At lower right, an impresario who may or may not be a slenderized Barnum oversees bathing beauties tanned and pale, as well as, at center, children in feathered headdresses, a Rudolph Valentino–like figure leading a horse that may or may not be a Lipizzaner, and, at left, an all-black band in elaborate uniforms over which the painter has obviously lingered.
The beauty contest is a pretext for various kinds of showmanship, which Stettheimer organizes according to genre, race, and gender. A seemingly endless supply of palm fronds and dripping red, white, and blue crystals mediate the carefully divided scene, in which everyone stays in his or her corner, as the show goes on. With the exception of Stettheimer and her artist friends, who are legible as themselves, everyone plays (and represents) a role, a mere type, suggesting that their identities within this convocation are at least partly performative. Identity’s fungibility is additionally figured, for example, by the labels (“Miss Atlantic City,” etc.) held by the beauties. Read allegorically, the painting offers a retort to American nativism, since it implies that much national belonging is merely “put on,” contingent and assumed for public occasions. Yet, here Stettheimer also limited herself to satirically depicting contemporary norms rather than upending or abandoning these norms for something else. Though the painting presents a quasi-democratic social sphere in which Americans ostensibly gather to have fun, there remain real divisions and inequalities within the collective setting. Indeed, so many shows go on simultaneously that it is difficult to determine the actual nature of the contest or what is at stake, and for which participants. The scene is, additionally, unrelentingly festive and self-congratulatory, though there is something unsettling about the many knowing smiles exchanged: some smile because they observe an amusing scene, others because they are on display. The painting’s commentary on these dynamics is uneven, whimsical, never quite attaining irony or critique.
Stettheimer’s unusual semi-realist, semi-allegorical mode in her mature paintings, combining both stylized stock figures and portraits of individuals known to her, of which Asbury Park South (1920), depicting a segregated New Jersey beach, is also an example, reaches its zenith with the late “Cathedrals” series, four large-scale compositions devoted to Broadway (1929), Fifth Avenue (1931), Wall Street (1939), and Art (1942). Though Stettheimer’s work was not commercially successful during her lifetime, in the “Cathedrals” series she explicitly appropriates commercial styles only hinted at elsewhere, exploring billboards, industrial lighting, illustration, entertainment industry publicity, and contemporary fashion. The costumes and sets she designed to great acclaim for Four Saints in Three Acts clearly influenced these late paintings, which are setlike in their composition and contain lacy elements recalling the cellophane she used in these designs.
There is a certain seamlessness between this light and purposely vapid work and actual advertising, as one clipping in Stettheimer’s papers at Yale indicates: an East Coast department store advertised its latest cellophane raincoat collection, imitating Stein’s prose style in the copy and including illustrations of Stettheimer’s scenery, an image of one cellophane lion plus palm tree. Like Kafka’s Nature Theater of Oklahoma, where “angels” on ladders play trumpets all day to publicize the performances, Stettheimer’s late works devote themselves strenuously to the American cult of celebrity, perhaps reveling in the emptiness of this endeavor. Even their satirical elements feel resigned to the vapidity of glamor, and recognition of a certain emptiness in New York social life may be as close as Stettheimer came to openly acknowledging the divisions of her new-old homeland.
AT THE END of her life, Stettheimer was working on a ballet about the life of Pocahontas, which, like her 1912 effort, was never to be staged. This patriotic work—celebrating the foundational myth in which Pocahontas rescues John Smith—had a number of strange features: Stettheimer and her collaborator, Virgil Thomson, had decided that Smith and his countrymen would wear Scottish highland garb rather than the expected British costume, and the ballet’s Native American characters were to be dressed in cellophane, gold foil, and feathers. The curators of the Jewish Museum show chose not to include the twenty-two maquettes Stettheimer produced, instead devoting space only to the two earlier stage design projects. 16 Yet the designs for this unfinished epic are worth mentioning because they demonstrate Stettheimer’s enthusiasm for styles of appropriation germane to period popular culture, along with her use of the trope of the noble savage, a stock character embodying the concept of the uncorrupted outsider and therefore allegorizing humanity’s innate goodness, a figure not unlike the faun. This choice of subject additionally implies Stettheimer’s acquiescence to increasingly fervent nationalism leading up to the US’s 1941 entry into WWII, suggesting not only that she viewed indigenous identity as yet another performance, available to a modern update via musical theater, but that she believed, or was willing to pretend that she believed, in an excessively cheerful national origin story.
It is possible that Stettheimer, an unmarried and childless Jewish woman, played down her own anomalousness in mainstream Protestant America, while also answering her family’s polite rejection of her ambitions to be an artist, by exoticizing and feminizing nearly everyone and everything in turn. However, such speculation verges on armchair psychology and almost certainly misses the point, which is that Stettheimer struggled with questions regarding power and assimilation throughout her American career. Oil painting, an economically and culturally dominant art form, became reconciled to minor decorative styles in Stettheimer’s hands, even as she took on major themes, including the nature of American identity. Stettheimer’s ever-changing signatures reflect the fact that she deliberated a great deal about her own authority as an artist. Until about 1920, while she still painted in a derivative European style, she favored her initials, “FS,” superimposed in such a way that the “F” appears to be impaling the “S,” transforming the first letter of Stettheimer’s surname into a certifying dollar sign, as if to say, “Look at me, I am a rich American!” 17 But in later paintings she more confidently offers her full name, often trompe l’oeil-style, trickily “written” on a depicted object. She additionally abbreviated, sometimes becoming the saintly “Florine St.,” a moniker that may have had something to do with Stein’s opera.
Wealth allowed Stettheimer to be at once candid, utopian, hermetic, escapist, appropriative, and in violation of good taste, andshe grew into this fact from 1914 on. She assumed an American identity of a kind, as a woman who could, at least in theory, buy whatever she desired. Whereas staunchly middle-class William Carlos Williams in a 1923 poem railed against the lack of “peasant traditions to give them / character,” which made average Americans fools for “gauds,” Stettheimer embraced artificial forms of pleasure and liberty, for she could afford them. 18 The mature Stettheimer made no secret of her affection for luxury. No longer using the hermetically crest-like “F$,” she proudly provided, usually in white, a full, or nearly full, name on her decadent, gilded, and frosted canvases—at least until The Cathedrals of Fifth Avenue (1931), where her old “F$” does double duty as the mark on a luxury car. Yet, in spite of her wealth, Stettheimer depicts herself in her final, unfinished painting of 1942, The Cathedrals of Art, standing on the side of folk culture. In the painting, icons of modernism such as MoMA director Alfred H. Barr Jr. and a painting by Picasso appear on one side of a templelike structure, while signifiers of vernacular aesthetics, a stylized bald eagle and Juliana Force of the Whitney Museum, occupy the other. Stettheimer is standing on the side of folk-influenced AMERICAN ART, as the right-hand column reads, rather than on that of the more lucrative high-modernist ART IN AMERICA, on the left. Florine Stettheimer, formerly F$, had become extraordinarily, surreally American, as only someone who adopts her nationality as a decorative style can.