At the opening of Florine Stettheimer’s Museum of Modern Art retrospective in 1946, her sister, Ettie Stettheimer, reportedly said, “I feel that this is the beginning of something.” For a while, it seemed as if Ettie would be proven wrong, as Stettheimer’s audaciously colored paintings of parties and flower arrangements faded into art-historical oblivion. But, over the past few decades, Stettheimer’s work has attracted a loyal following.
On view now at Jewish Museum is the largest Stettheimer survey in New York in two decades. With that show in mind, reprinted below is Glenway Wescott’s essay on Stettheimer’s MoMA retrospective, from the January 1947 issue of ARTnews, written in response to an un-bylined capsule review that dismissed the show as celebrity fodder. (Stettheimer was well-connected—she was friends with Marcel Duchamp, and the parties she threw were attended by Francis Picabia, Henry McBride, and others.) Wescott’s essay, along with the original scathing review, follow in full below. —Alex Greenberger
“Reviews and Previews”
FLORINE STETTHEIMER, who died two years ago, was a center of a fashionable group of artists, musicians, and writers. Her large retrospective, at the Museum of Modern Art, hardly deserves the important space allotted to it. A quotation from the explanatory labels could summarize the show: “Edward Steichen photographing Marcel Duchamp attended by the artist’s sister Ettie; Baron de Meyer seated with back turned; . . . the Marquis De Buenavista against a tree.” Museum of Modern Art; to Nov. 17.
“Stettheimer: A Reply”
By Glenway Wescott
Disagreeing with ARTNEWS’ review (Nov. 1946) of the late Miss Stettheimer’s exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, Mr. Wescott asked us to publish this article in reply. Because of his distinction as a writer, we are glad, exceptionally, to accede the request—still reserving for the future, however, the right again to indicate what we consider triviality in an artist through brevity rather than by extended comment.
For Florine Stettheimer painting was a vocation, not a profession. As a woman of some means, with an approving family and artistic friends close to her, she felt no concern to sell her pictures or particular anxiety about their pleasing or displeasing anyone. As to her having a career or making a reputation, doubtless her independence had a handicapping effect; she never entrusted her work to a dealer, to be made known gradually in the unusual way. She was shy and lacked the competitive feeling. Previous to this winter’s memorial exhibition (which recently closed at the Museum of Modern Art, and will travel to the Arts Club in Chicago, and to the De Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco) no one was given opportunity to respond or react to her art except in her studio, in her presence, or by way of a single example here or there.
Therefore, naturally the talk and criticism of it, all of a sudden, has been mixed and somewhat extreme—on the one hand, the pride and delight of those whose high opinion of a few works has been borne out by the view of some fifty canvases assembled; on the other hand, the disfavor of a type of critic who only glances and makes his point and goes on to the next thing, like a hit-and-run driver; and as it always has been in modern art a great many people in between, a collective mind not made up, willing to be amused, hesitating to be impressed.
Like it or not, Florine Stettheimer had originality, which in the pictorial art of our country is rare and important. This often entails some solitariness and oddity; it did in her case. Certain of her large canvases seem self-conscious and that is an imperfection. As it were defiantly, she would often exaggerate a characteristic of her principal figure or a feature of her central design. But in canvas after canvas, passages of still-life and miniature scenes set apart in the background are finer in their way than any twentieth-century work except Bonnard’s; and in fact her detailed way was not unlike his.
Even in her early production—as early as 1917, when American art in general was not good, and the painters whom she saw successful all around her went in for either a rich muddy effect or a cheating thinness like sleight-of-hand—her brush was strong and direct, and her choices of colors heart-felt. Truly the paint adorns the canvas, festive and clean. In her paintings of flowers, this pure pictorial quality impresses almost everyone.
Her paintings of groups of people, both indoor and outdoor scenes full of small figures, are all a kind of portraiture. As for the spirit of it, you will find the equivalent in literature more often than in pictorial art: the letters of Madame de Sévigné, the journal of Dorothy Wordsworth—vibrant, private, decidedly feminine personalities in whom mind and heart are always mingled; the aesthetic sense scarcely distinguishing itself from the more intimate emotions.
Every one of these rather large, bold compositions of Miss Stettheimer’s—to her way of thinking, as her inspiration began—was a personal matter, something of a secret, a keepsake. All was a labor of love; a recording of her family affections and of her lively interest in the good creative company she and her mother and sisters frequented; a remembrance of fêtes galantes, a keeping of dear anniversaries, some of which must have been heart-breaking as the years passed.
Before long, of course, no one will know or care exactly what the old reality was which haunted her and prompted her. The elements in her art which are most like literature will vanish away out of it; but the rest is lasting, and it appeals to one’s imagination, if one has any, and gratifies the sensuality of the eye, if one’s eye is sensual. For she derived a particular, seemingly carefree lyricism and happy decorative effect even from strange and mournful reminiscence: beauty from the ashes.
Now that she is dead, and several of those nearest and dearest to her whom she painted have also passed away, the exhibition as a whole suggests elegy and almost bitter nostalgia: the end of the ball, the withering bouquet. There are certain art-lovers to whom modern art means vitality, vitality at all costs! nothing much else; and one could hardly expect them to like this. But as her sister, the novelist who signs herself Henrie Waste, remarked in the crowd upon the Museum of Modern Art’s opening night, “I feel that this is the beginning of something.”
It does happen in art once in a while: a real popularity developing from the predilection of a few enthusiasts and the bold and generous policy of certain museums; fame in the margin of its period, without the usual approach to it or normal pursuit of it.