Artists Features

Imagine the Fun Florine Stettheimer Would Have with Donald Trump: The Artist as Feminist, Democrat, and Chronicler of Her Time

Florine Stettheimer, Self-Portrait with Palette (Painter and Faun), undated, oil on canvas.
ART PROPERTIES, AVERY ARCHITECTURAL AND FINE ARTS LIBRARY, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY IN THE CITY OF NEW YORK, NEW YORK, GIFT OF THE ESTATE OF ETTIE STETTHEIMER, 1967

Not only was artist Florine Stettheimer an ardent Democrat, she despised anyone and anything she found pompous, misogynistic, or egotistical. As is evident in her paintings and poetry, Stettheimer’s early 20th-century political beliefs—equality for women and acceptance of all varieties of sexual preference, an unusually open-minded attitude toward African-Americans, support for immigrants escaping war, and the need for government-sponsored social programs—clashed with those of our current president. Unlike Donald Trump’s cabinet, populated largely by older, wealthy, straight, white men, Stettheimer filled her paintings with gay and immigrant artists, and with women and African-Americans enjoying themselves in their own context at a time when homosexuality was illegal and Jim Crow laws and the Ku Klux Klan were prevalent. When dealing with difficult and controversial subjects, rather than using images of violence, fear, and subjugation, Stettheimer’s primary means of documenting issues of her time was through positive imagery and humor.

The artist—whose work is on show now in “Florine Stettheimer: Painting Poetry” at the Jewish Museum in New York—cannot be described as an overtly political artist or social activist. She was an introvert and a wealthy woman tied to certain social mores. Born to a prominent New York family, she never experienced the effects of poverty or violence. However, despite her upbringing and occasional snobbishness, Stettheimer was remarkably broad-minded for her time. She was attracted to both the gaudiest forms of popular culture and the most explicit and controversial cultural arts. This unusual attitude found its way into her painting and at least those parts of her diaries that were not destroyed by her younger sister Ettie after the artist’s death. As art historian Linda Nochlin observed of Stettheimer’s painting, there is “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.”1

Having painted the first overtly feminist nude in art history and ignoring the baroquely masculine regionalist style and the abstraction of many contemporary modernists, she consciously developed a narrative style from the unusual perspective of the female gaze. Stettheimer’s unique mature painting style and unbiased attitude can be attributed to her unconventional, future-oriented personality and to the fact that she spent her first 40 years steeped in the far more progressive culture of European cities, particularly Paris. Between 1907 and 1910, Florine and her sisters Ettie and Carrie attended many exceptional theatrical performances that particularly featured women’s roles.2 They saw a scandalous interpretation of Richard Strauss’s Salome (1907/9) in Paris, with the notorious Russian actress and dancer Ida Rubinstein in the leading role.3 In her “Dance of the Seven Veils,” Rubinstein shed layers until, according to Jean Cocteau, the last, “most difficult of all, came away in one piece like the bark of the eucalyptus tree” and left her naked. Stettheimer’s reaction: “she looked wonderful . . . bust absurd . . .”

Florine Stettheimer, A Model (Nude Self-Portrait), 1915, oil on canvas.
ART PROPERTIES, AVERY ARCHITECTURAL AND FINE ARTS LIBRARY, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY IN THE CITY OF NEW YORK, NEW YORK, GIFT OF THE ESTATE OF ETTIE STETTHEIMER, 1967

Evidence provided among the Stettheimers’ papers by pamphlets from the 1896 First International Feminist Congress, held in Paris, makes it clear that Florine’s feminism was already firmly in place from an early age. After attending a 1909 performance of Aristophanes’s Lysistrata in Munich, she complained that it was a horrible evening: “The play was written by a man who was completely anti-feminist . . . I concluded that they should have all the roles taken by men and the performance only for men—the way it was written, no woman could enjoy it.”

Stettheimer’s time in Paris also contributed to her attitude toward sexual preference, something that distinguished her family’s salon once they returned to New York City. In Paris, sexual relations between same-sex individuals were not illegal as they were in the United States and England. As a result, lesbians, including the Stettheimers’ cousin, the poet Natalie Barney, moved freely throughout the city. Given their close relations with all of their relations, the Stettheimers undoubtedly knew, and possibly visited, Barney’s infamous Friday afternoon salons at 20 Rue Jacob. Following 1884, new laws in France gave women the right to initiate divorce proceedings, and a powerful new symbol, the Femme Nouvelle, emerged, demanding women’s rights. Many of these New Women chose to live independently, not marrying or having children. The wearing of masculine clothing, including pants, by the Femme Nouvelle was seen as a feminist statement against the predominant marginalization of women’s accomplishments.

From her twenties or thirties, Stettheimer had a seamstress custom make her pantaloons (and later a black velvet pantsuit). After about 1916, most of her self-portraits depicted her wearing pantaloons as her “uniform,” identifying her as a professional artist, complete with artist’s palette and brush. Like her friend Georgia O’Keeffe,4 Stettheimer used her clothing as an element of her public “brand.” Despite knowing most of the most significant photographers of the time, she would not allow them to photograph her, thereby ensuring that she controlled her image via her paintings. Even into her seventies, Stettheimer also often portrayed herself as around the age of thirty, wearing her artist’s uniform, with her characteristic red stiletto heels. For the artist, wearing pants offered her ease in working, particularly given the large scale of most of her paintings, as well as carried a feminist political implication: one can imagine her saying, like mystery writer Dorothy Sayers, “If the trousers do not attract you, so much the worse; for the moment I do not want to attract you. I want to enjoy myself as a human being.”5

Florine Stettheimer, Fete on the Lake, undated, oil on cardboard, mounted on board.
ART PROPERTIES, AVERY ARCHITECTURAL AND FINE ARTS LIBRARY, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY IN THE CITY OF NEW YORK, NEW YORK, GIFT OF THE ESTATE OF ETTIE STETTHEIMER, 1967

Leaving Europe in 1914 to escape the unrest preceding World War I, Stettheimer was “horrified by the plight of refugees” whom she and her sisters saw flooding into Switzerland. Once permanently back in New York, Florine and her sisters volunteered at the Red Cross, spending afternoons rolling bandages. They attended meetings and parades supporting the Allies and worried as their nephew Walter served in the air force. However, rather than ever dealing explicitly with the war in her art, Stettheimer celebrated the following peace process in a painting titled New York/Liberty (1919). The painting is a highly accurate, realistic portrayal of President Woodrow Wilson’s July 8, 1919, return from the Paris Peace Conference aboard the World War I battleship Washington. As in the actual event, the USS Washington in Stettheimer’s painting is escorted by the USS Oklahoma and other military ships, with a navy blimp flying overhead. Stettheimer gilded the huge Statue of Liberty where, on December 2, 1916, President Wilson had re-illuminated the torch that, through a major fund-raising campaign, had just been replaced. During the three years prior to the war’s end, the statue had become a key symbol of “America’s fighting overseas to secure Liberty in Europe.” Although she collapsed the actual distance from Grant’s Tomb on the Upper West Side down to the lower end of Manhattan, Stettheimer realistically captured the most prominent architecture of her beloved city’s skyline circa 1918–20 as a mélange of recognizable traditional and modern buildings.6

New York/Liberty records a contemporary event and, at the same time, is the visual equivalent of Stettheimer’s experience of returning to her native land. Arriving in New York not only signified her returning home permanently but offered Stettheimer an entirely fresh beginning. From this point on, many of her paintings reveal her patriotic “love affair” with America. She had spent the first three decades of her life mastering traditional academic European painting styles. Now, Stettheimer returned home as a 40-year-old, unmarried, wealthy woman with a taste for the controversial elements of the avant-garde. For years while traveling through Europe with her mother and two sisters she had constantly chafed against family obligations that kept her from having time to paint. On returning to America, she felt she was “delivered from bondage,” as she noted to a reviewer, and she wrote in her diary she had “throw[n] off old shackles” and “become free.”7As a result, Stettheimer vowed to create a completely original, contemporary style of painting that captured all that was exciting about modern 20th-century New York as she personally saw—and more important, sensorially experienced—it:

“Then back to New York

And skytowers 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 America having its fling

And what I should like is to paint this thing.”8

Florine Stettheimer, Lake Placid, 1919, oil on canvas.
MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS, BOSTON, GIFT OF MISS ETTIE STETTHEIMER

As a sign of her new attitude, among her first paintings in New York is the startlingly subversive circa-1915 Nude Self-Portrait. Stettheimer’s painting is the first overtly feminist self-portrait in Western art, and she is only the second-known woman artist to paint an entirely naked one.9 At the time she executed the work, it was absolutely unthinkable, even scandalous, that a wealthy, upper-class, unmarried, middle-aged woman would paint herself nude.10 During the first two decades of the century, women’s fashions rose only slightly above the ankle, and womens’ bathing suits were wool chemises that fell below the knee, often accompanied by concealing legwear.

In a humorous and provocative move, Stettheimer’s Self-Portrait is based on several well-known, controversial nudes from Western art history, including Francisco Goya’s Nude Maja (circa 1797–1800), and Edouard Manet’s painting of a prostitute, Olympia (1865).11 The similarity indicates that Stettheimer consciously intended the painting as a swan song to her decades of training in the tradition of European male artists’ work. In effect, her Nude Self-Portrait reverses centuries of nude painting conventions in Western art geared toward male voyeurism. Instead, Stettheimer portrayed the female body here as a specifically female experience.

In most such traditional nudes, the subject had been depicted with her eyes closed or looking away, giving the male viewer unrestricted freedom to gaze. In her Nude Self-Portrait, by contrast, Stettheimer looks directly at the viewer, rendering anew the aspect that so scandalized viewers of Goya’s and Manet’s portrayals. Her expression is, however, altogether different from theirs. Stettheimer is not inviting male viewers’ voyeuristic enjoyment of her sexuality as in all female nude paintings prior to this, nor is she being confrontational in the manner of Manet’s Olympia. Instead her expression is mocking—ultimately an exaltation of femaleness. Stettheimer’s nude controls the gaze rather than being the object of it. The artist thereby creates a tension between the traditional male expectations of ownership and the reality of female experience. Posing naked as a 44-year-old woman, her pubic hair visible, Stettheimer was very aware of society’s lessening of a woman’s value as she ages, as is apparent in a poem she titled “Civilizers of the World”:

“They like a woman

to have a mind.

They are of

Greater

interest they find.

They are not

very young,

women of that kind.”12

One of the most important and influential events of 1920 was the August 18 passage of the 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote (although, as in many White House meetings today, women were excluded from the ceremonial signing in Washington, D.C.). In keeping with her long-held female-centric outlook, Stettheimer devoted several major works to the subject of women, often turning her biting sense of humor on those from her own social class. In some cases, she chose to portray women engaged in activities without the need or desire for any male companionship. In others, she displayed her pointed dislike of traditional, conventional women’s roles.

Florine Stettheimer, Spring Sale at Bendel’s, 1921, oil on canvas.
PHILADELPHIA MUSEUM OF ART, GIFT OF MISS ETTIE STETTHEIMER

In Spring Sale at Bendel’s (1921), Stettheimer turned the act of shopping into a fantastic balletic comedy of vivid color and frenzied action. The painting captures a generally unseen aspect of upper-class women’s lives and, at the same time, destroys any notion of these ladies as models of controlled, decorous behavior. Slim saleswomen in plain black dresses patiently wait while their customers prance, whirl, twist, and contort before the mirror to glimpse their figures in new clothes. Each woman is isolated in self-absorbed reverie, several getting stuck trying to get in or out of dresses. Seeking the very latest fashions, they act out a frenzied dance across the floor. At the lower left, the store’s tuxedoed head manager stands on a stair platform, frowning at the viewer, while on the bottom step a small Pekingese dog sports a sweater embroidered with a dollar sign. The painting displays many signs of wealth: the sweeping, carpeted staircase; gold-fringed curtain; feather-plumed gilded mirror; and masses of luxurious fabrics. Nonetheless, the composition resembles a mad brawl, with bargains passionately contested and well-dressed women leaping across a table to grab discounted scarves from each other’s hands, as though it is instead a scene among teenage hoodlums.

In 1931 Stettheimer began a painting titled Cathedrals of Fifth Avenue, centering the composition around a high-society wedding taking place at Saint Patrick’s. Throughout her life, the artist believed marriage to be a suffocating, conventional undertaking that benefited the man but not the woman. In her mind, marriage actively limited a woman’s creative freedom and intellectual life, as she ironically wrote:

“Sweet little Miss Mouse

Wanted her own house

So she married Mr. Mole

And got only a hole.”13

Her depiction of the wedding reflects her feminist view by making the bride the least interesting aspect of the painting and ironically conflating religion with acquisitiveness.

Just as they do today, during Stettheimer’s time, wealthy New York families vied for the use of Saint Patrick’s for weddings. The cathedral’s sanctuary was completed and its great organ installed the same year that Stettheimer began the painting. Contemporary newspapers and magazines carried long articles detailing the decorations and food at weddings of the rich and the fashions of the “smart set” members attending. In Stettheimer’s painting, below the cathedral’s Gothic arch, an elaborately robed bishop and a modestly robed priest bless the newlyweds, surrounded by clearly individualized, highly detailed, members of the wedding party. As Linda Nochlin observed, the Cathedrals paintings are “secular icons presided over by contemporary cult figures.”14 In contrast to virtually all the other figures in the painting, Stettheimer depicts the bride as a characterless mass of diffused white light, her barely perceptible facial features consisting only of hazy slits for eyes and a mouth. She is a nonperson, while the groom is conventionally tall, dark, and handsome, and stands passively, like a fashion mannequin. As she often did in her group paintings of straight men, Stettheimer reversed the usual convention by making the man, rather than the woman, the object of pulchritude.

Florine Stettheimer’s studio at the Beaux-Arts Building, New York.
PETER A. JULEY & SON, 1944/SMITHSONIAN AMERICAN ART MUSEUM, PHOTOGRAPH ARCHIVES, PETER A. JULEY & SON COLLECTION

Irony and humor are evident throughout the painting’s details, particularly in the children. At the left, a bored altar boy uses his scepter to lift and peer underneath the bride’s gown. An altar boy at the right swings his censer back as if to bash a gray dog with it. A tiny flower girl positions herself directly in front of Arnold Genthe’s camera, attempting to draw attention away from the bride. Floating in the painting’s sky, Stettheimer painted references to the commercial elements of the nuptials, all found on buildings along Fifth Avenue. The engagement period is represented by the rings from Tiffany’s, the name spelled with colored jewels; Maillard chocolates, red roses, champagne, and sugar candy from Sherry’s; the bride’s preparation with face creams from Hudnuts and a designer wedding dress from Tappé; gifts of bone china from Thorley’s of Staffordshire, England; and the wedding dinner at Delmonico’s Restaurant at Fifth Avenue and 44th Street. The name of Altman’s department store is made up of various furnishings—all essential for the well-to-do couple setting up a house.

A separate “ceremony” takes place at the upper-left corner, where Stettheimer included a vignette of Charles Lindbergh’s May 7, 1929, ticker-tape parade down Fifth Avenue past 4 million people. Lindbergh’s historic flight across the Atlantic became a symbol for the focus on individual initiative in the 1920s.15 By painting a tiny image celebrating a technological hero against an overwhelming one of a huge society wedding bordered by the accoutrements of wealth, Cathedrals of Fifth Avenue is Stettheimer’s ironic comment on high society’s continuing valuation of conventional traditions over modern individual achievements.

In Paris in 1910, Stettheimer and her sisters attended the premiere of the Ballet Russes performance of Claude Debussy’s L’Après-midi d’un Faune, in which the young Russian dancer Vaslav Nijinsky caused near riots by undulating his hips as though simulating an orgasm over the abandoned scarf of the ballet’s wood nymph. Critics called the performance, “lecherous” and “filthy and bestial,” but Stettheimer’s reaction was ecstatic: “I saw something beautiful last evening . . . Nijinsky the Faun was marvelous—He is the most wonderful male dancer I have seen—and I imagine the rest of the world has never seen better. . . .”

Florine Stettheimer, Beauty Contest: To the Memory of P.T. Barnum, 1924, oil on canvas.
WADSWORTH ATHENAEUM MUSEUM OF ART, HARTFORD, CONNECTICUT, GIFT OF ETTIE STETTHEIMER, 1947

In 1920 Stettheimer painted Music, a memory of Nijinsky’s performance, as though it were a dream. Rather than accurately re-creating the ballet, however, she gave visual form to Nijinsky’s bisexuality by conflating several of his most famous roles: Nijinsky’s costume, for example, isn’t the spotted faun-colored one from L’Après-midi, but a very feminized adaptation of the costume he wore in Fokine’s Spectre de la Rose. A red gown, it now has a heart-shaped bodice revealing a slight cleavage and emphasizing a tiny waist and rounded, womanly hips. Stettheimer complicated any purely feminine reading of Nijinsky’s figure by also emphasizing the dancer’s masculine features, such as his prominent Adam’s apple, muscular biceps, hairy underarms, and thick male thighs. The figure poses with his feet en pointe, a position that was foreign to male ballet dancers, but that Nijinsky was uniquely renowned for his ability to perform.

Stettheimer’s portrayal of Nijinsky with both female and male attributes was very provocative. During the 1920s and ’30s, gay characters appeared on the Broadway stage, and New Yorkers of all classes visited gay clubs in Harlem, known as “pansy clubs.” However, a federal law prohibited “sodomy,” and New York City police made regular arrests for the crime of homosexuality, so anything other than straight sexual behavior was hidden in public.16

One of the most unusual aspects of the Stettheimers’ salon was the large number of their gay, bisexual, and lesbian friends and acquaintances, who were comfortable being their authentic selves among their straight friends. Several of the sisters’ closest friends, including Charles Demuth, Marsden Hartley, Henry McBride, Virgil Thomson, and Baron Adolph de Meyer (the latter married to a lesbian) were homosexual; Carl Van Vechten, Cecil Beaton, and Georgia O’Keeffe were bisexual; Natalie Barney and Romaine Brooks were lesbians; and Alfred Stieglitz, Marcel Duchamp, Gaston Lachaise, Marie Sterner, and Leo Stein were heterosexual. This open, natural mix of friends with different sexual preferences continued when Stettheimer held salons in her studio in the Beaux Arts building in midtown Manhattan, although later in life she also had parties where most of the guests were strong feminist women.

The fashion for women’s bodies in the 1920s was the thin, straight, small-breasted flapper style. This matched Stettheimer’s own body type, and as a result, most of the male and female figures in her paintings are portrayed as somewhat androgynous. This also derived from her laying out her compositions as though they were scenes from an active performance, the figures being actors or dancers caught moving through space. The exception to this en pointe androgyny was in her portraits of people with specific body types, or details of men with “beautiful bodies” that women are admiring.

Florine Stettheimer, Asbury Park South, 1920, oil on canvas.
COLLECTION OF HALLEY K HARRISBURG AND MICHAEL ROSENFELD, NEW YORK

During the most prolific decade of her life, Stettheimer painted a major work demonstrating her unusually open-minded attitude, for the time, toward African-Americans. Her very rare use of a specific location in the title of her 1920 painting Asbury Park South connects it with a highly significant site in the history of race relations during the last decades of the 19th century.17

During the 1880s and ’90s, Asbury Park developed as a major summer resort, attracting more than 30,000 white vacationers annually to its beaches, boardwalk, and casino. A middle-class community of African-Americans settled in the town’s West End to serve as maids, groundskeepers, and drivers, and to work the concessions, all necessary to keep the resort functioning. They also started a series of important jazz clubs that brought many significant musicians (including Count Basie and Josephine Baker), and drew white as well as black clientele. Initially, despite the “separate but equal” Jim Crow laws that enforced segregation after Reconstruction, the black residents and white tourists openly shared the beaches and boardwalk. By the turn of the century, however, the white visitors increasingly objected to the “social equality of blacks on the bathing beaches” where the white people bathed.18 Initially, the black population actively resisted segregation, with a local African-American minister stating in a New York Times article: “The colored man contributes largely to the wealth of this country . . . and we are here to stay . . . This country is for the whites and blacks alike, including even the beach of Asbury Park.”19 Eventually, citing economic reasons, such as a major decline in tourist business due to the mixing of races, Asbury Park actively restricted all African-Americans to a section of the beach on the south side of the Casino.

In 1920 Van Vechten took a number of friends, including Stettheimer, playwright Avery Hopwood, dancer Paul Théveenez, Van Vechten’s wife the actress Fania Marinoff, and Duchamp, to visit this segregated section of Asbury Park beach. Stettheimer chose to record the event in a monumental work. The subject of Asbury Park South is black beachgoers, all of whom are delighting in their day at the shore. The single most striking aspect of the painting is that all the people are fully realized, distinct personalities, just as Stettheimer painted herself and her friends in the composition. At a time when most other depictions of African-Americans by white artists were caricatures, with pure black skin, Stettheimer’s close observation is evidenced by her black figures’ skin tones, that range from light tan to the deepest brown. They are also distinctive because of their proud bearing, natural stylishness, poise, self-confidence, and vivacity. In addition, Stettheimer’s painting is completely unlike other contemporary white artists’ depictions of the circumstances of black Americans, who were inevitably portrayed only as domestics, rural workers, or entertainers for white audiences in advertisements and cartoons. Instead, in an early and rare instance in American painting, African-Americans appear as well-dressed individuals, enjoying themselves on a beautiful beach in the same context and manner as their white peers.

Stettheimer believed Asbury Park South was one of her best paintings, and submitted it to more exhibitions than any other work during her lifetime. On March 23, 1921, the French modernist Gaston Lachaise found the painting “radiant”20; Albert Gleizes thought so highly of it that in 1922 he proposed Asbury Park South for inclusion in the Paris Salon d’Automne, where it was accepted. Sixteen years later, Tom Mabry, the Museum of Modern Art’s curator, included Asbury Park South in the first exhibition of American art ever staged in Europe.21

The bedroom of Florine Stettheimer’s studio at the Beaux-Arts Building, New York.
PETER A. JULEY & SON, 1944/SMITHSONIAN AMERICAN ART MUSEUM, PHOTOGRAPH ARCHIVES, PETER A. JULEY & SON COLLECTION

Stettheimer’s democratic politics meant she closely followed every presidential election. She read voraciously throughout her life, with a preference for Proust, biographies of strong, independent women, and politics and history from both sides of the Atlantic. In 1928 she stood firmly behind the first Catholic presidential candidate, Al Smith, a progressive reformer who opposed prohibition and steadfastly championed women’s receiving the vote. Although we know she had a number of flirtations and romances with men during her younger years, after age 50, Stettheimer reserved her male adoration for Presidents George Washington and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Stettheimer once wrote to Carl Van Vechten, saying Washington “is the only man I collect.”22

In her Beaux Arts studio facing Bryant Park on West 40th Street, Stettheimer had a small “patriotic” room separated from her two-story living room by transparent cellophane curtains. There, surrounded by tall freestanding, bas-relief columns, gilded and white, were shelves filled with busts and tiny figures of Washington. On the walls, Stettheimer hung her two most “militaristic” paintings, A Day at West Point and New York/Liberty, the latter with her red, white, and blue frame surmounted by a gilded wooden eagle. She designed all the room’s tables to appear as if covered with draped white cloths fringed with gold. In one rounded corner cabinet, with an open niche surrounded by illusionistic drapery, Stettheimer installed at eye level an approximately foot-high marble bust of Washington.

Standing atop a pedestal, a huge, gilded figure of Washington is prominent in Stettheimer’s 1939 painting The Cathedrals of Wall Street. As in so many of her works, she accurately replicates the physical location, described thus by New York Times reporter Elliott V. Bell in 1938: “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.”

Conceptually, The Cathedrals of Wall Street is a combination of themes: the pageantry and national pride sparked by the New York World’s Fair of 1938–39, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and laws to reverse the devastation caused by the Depression, and an economy recovering with the mobilization toward World War II. Specifically, the painting illustrates the April 30, 1939, celebration held in New York City to honor the 150th anniversary of George Washington’s inauguration. Among the events recognizing the date was a public reenactment on the SubTreasury Building steps, with representatives of military organizations, marching bands, and speeches by Mayor Fiorella La Guardia and other dignitaries. The same day, the New York World’s Fair opened in nearby Queens, with “Colonial America” as its theme and an 80-foot statue of Washington on display. Stettheimer was thrilled to be invited to see President Roosevelt lay the fair’s cornerstone, and found him very charming and amusing.

In The Cathedrals of Wall Street, a huge portrait of Roosevelt in gold and white,23 his name prominently displayed, sits just above the painting’s center. His image is set off against a gold coin, under the tympanum of the New York Stock Exchange building. (For accuracy’s sake, Stettheimer sent her lawyer out to get her a piece of ticker tape so she could replicate it.)

Florine Stettheimer, Family Portrait II, 1933 , oil on canvas.
MUSEUM OF MODERN ART, NEW YORK, GIFT OF MISS ETTIE STETTHEIMER, 1956

The Stettheimers were not financially affected by the Depression and, as was characteristic of Florine, she never portrayed the poverty and suffering she must have witnessed during the late 1920s and early ’30s. The only evidence in her painting of economic hardship is at the lower left, where figures from the Salvation Army—the lady officers in uniform, one seated before the piano—sing “God Bless America.” Behind them is a tiny image of an itinerant preacher, waving his hands atop a barrel, as Elliott Bell described, “exhorting the noon-time crowds of clerks and office boys to forsake Mammon and return to God.”24

More than anything, however, the painting reflects Stettheimer’s belief in Roosevelt’s New Deal policies. The prominence of the banks’ names and the words “mortgage” and “insurance” call to mind Roosevelt’s creation of Social Security, unemployment insurance, easier access to mortgages, and, when the banks collapsed, his convincing the public that they were safe so that within a month, three-quarters of them reopened. In the painting, above Roosevelt’s portrait, are those of three men who were part of the president’s “brain trust”—extremely wealthy, influential men who assisted him—Bernard Baruch, John D. Rockefeller, and J.P. Morgan.

As she prized accuracy, Stettheimer went to great lengths to research details for her painting. She sought someone who could introduce her to Eleanor Roosevelt, to whom she gave a major, central position in the forefront of the composition, and was very disappointed not to meet her. In order to meet the popular singer Grace Moore, shown singing the National Anthem and holding the American Flag at the right side of the composition, Stettheimer had her hair done at the same hairdresser. She wrote to the military offices to get the proper information on Army and Marine uniforms, and, as contemporary photographs demonstrate, she caught the exact perspective through which Trinity Church can be seen from the side of the George Washington statue. What most distinguishes The Cathedrals of Wall Street is its sensory nature: the flags flying in the wind, the choppy water on the horizon, Moore singing the “Star-Spangled Banner” and the Salvation Army officers singing “God Bless America” from their Glory Hole. The marching, uniformed brass and drums Salvation Army Band performs, and a young Boy Scout near a gilded column plays his horn. Through all this cacophony, Stettheimer herself marches on red stilettos, at the bottom right, holding a bouquet signed, “To George Washington from Florine.”

Artist Marsden Hartley, whom Ettie supported financially, wrote letters back from Germany where he was visiting in 1936, admiring Hitler’s economic reforms and ability to give the non-Jewish German people a new sense of nationalism, “outside of the Jewish question which of course is tragic. . . .”25 When Hartley returned to New York, the Stettheimers barred him from their salons, and never spoke to him again.26 In a letter of July 16, 1938, written to her sisters vacationing in Saratoga, New York, Stettheimer described the coming horrors of World War II as seen in film reels. On September 3, 1939, Stettheimer noted in her diary that war had broken out in Europe.

She also eagerly listened to the 1940 presidential campaign speeches on the radio and was horrified to learn that her close friends Henry McBride and Clagett Wilson favored Wendell Willkie. Thrilled when Roosevelt was again elected, she noted in her diary: “Thank goodness it [the inauguration] came off—heard Oath and speech . . .” Just as she had befriended many artists, including Duchamp, Gleizes, Lachaise, and Picabia, who immigrated to New York fleeing WWI, Stettheimer praised America’s welcoming many immigrants fleeing the Nazis during World War II. As she noted in her diary, among the inauguration speeches were some of “our most illustrious refugees—[Maurice] Maeterlinck [the Belgian poet and writer,] [Ignacy Jan] Paderewski [the Polish pianist, composer, and politician for independence,] Eve Curie [the French feminist writer and war correspondent], etc.”

Florine Stettheimer, Picnic at Bedford Hills, 1918, oil on canvas.
PENNSYLVANIA ACADEMY OF THE FINE ARTS, PHILADELPHIA, GIFT OF ETTIE STETTHEIMER

Florine Stettheimer’s paintings take contemplation, repeated viewing, and, often, an understanding of the context in which they were painted to be fully understood. At a moment defined by a president prone to bombastic outbursts, incomplete sentences, and the promulgation of “alternative facts,” Florine Stettheimer’s paintings offer a newly relevant, alternative, and open-minded point of view toward many of the same issues that fill the political landscape right now. All the details in her works are based on in-depth research and factual imagery. And she achieved this in her idiosyncratic, lighthearted, consciously feminine style—a mode our current president would hate. There are few artists I can imagine more effectively mocking Trump in a visible way than Florine Stettheimer. To be sure, she would probably paint him while wearing one of her black pantsuits.

Barbara Bloemink’s biography and catalogue raisonné on Florine Stettheimer will be published in 2018. An art historian with a Ph.D. from Yale, Bloemink was previously the director of five art museums, including the Guggenheim-Hermitage and the Smithsonian National Design Museum, and has organized over 70 museum exhibitions on contemporary and modern art and design.


1 Linda Nochlin, “Florine Stettheimer: Rococo Subversive,” in Barbara J. Bloemink and Elisabeth Sussman, Florine Stettheimer: Manhattan Fantastica (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1995), 102.

2 A small sampling of the “woman-oriented” productions seen during just two years by the Stettheimers includes:

London, 1907:

  • The Girls of Gottenberg
  • Oscar Wilde’s A Woman of No Importance

Berlin, 1907:

  • Richard Strauss’s Salome, 1907 (or 1909). Stettheimer describes seeing the performance in her diary of 1907, but histories of the performance date it 1909; and Stettheimer was not always conscientious about accuracy in dating her entries.)
  • Ethel Barrymore in a play
  • Patrick Campbell as Electra
  • Vera Komissarzhevskaya in A Doll’s House
  • Hedda Gabler (in German in German Theater)
  • Lillian Russel in “racing comedy” Wildfire
  • Isadora Duncan and Walter Damrosch at Metropolitan Opera with New York Symphony Orchestra.

New York, 1909:

  • Ethel Barrymore in Lady Frederick
  • Fiske in Salvation Nell
  • Annie Russell in The Stronger Sex
  • Maxine Elliott in The Chaperone
  • Eleanor Robson in The Dawn of Tomorrow
  • Anna Held in Miss Innocence
  • Julia Marlowe in The Goddess of Reason
  • Fannie Ward in The New Lady Bantock
  • Kathryn Kidder in A Woman of Impulse
  • Marie Doro in The Richest Girl
  • Blanche Bates in The Fighting Hope
  • Margaret Anglin in The Awakening of Helena Richie

3 Richard Strauss created the opera on the theme of Salome in 1905 including the Dance of the Seven Veils with Salome shedding her veils until she is ultimately virtually nude. (Although popular in Europe, the subject was banned in England when it was adapted by Oscar Wilde in a play published in 1893 with illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley.) When Ida Rubinstein appeared in Strauss’s role in 1908 and 1909 in Paris she precipitated an anti-Semitic, misogynistic backlash. Her performance was applauded by Jean Cocteau and she later became affiliated with the Parisian lesbian milieu. Marcus, Jane. “Salome: The Jewish Princess was a New Woman,” Bulletin of the New York Public Library, 1974, p. 100, n. 24.

4 Wanda Corn, Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern (Brooklyn Museum/Delmonico Books, 2017). This exhibition was groundbreaking in presenting O’Keeffe’s carefully controlled apparel and image through photography, her clothing, and accessories, as well as her paintings, for the first time.

5 Quoted in Carolyn G. Heilbrun, Writing a Woman’s Life (Ballantine Books, 1988), 55.

6 I have identified most of the buildings in this painting that were all built prior to Stettheimer’s 1919 painting of it. For further information please refer to my upcoming biography and catalogue raisonné of Stettheimer, due in early 2018.

7 Matthew Lonrden, “Review of the Society of Independent Artists,” in The World Magazine, March 20, 1920.

8 Florine Stettheimer, Crystal Flowers: Poems and a Libretto, ed. Irene Gammel and Suzanne Zelazo (BookThug, 2010), 79.

9 The German artist Paula Modersohn-Becker is believed to be the first woman to paint a nude self-portrait. However, her two little-known works, the full-nude Self Portrait as a Standing Nude and the sketchy study Self-Portrait as Standing Nude with Hat, both appear in traditional, male-oriented “presentation” poses, without the overtly feminist female gaze of Stettheimer’s self-portrait. To date, no other nude self-portraits painted by women have been identified between Modersohn-Becker’s two undated nude studies of 1906 and Stettheimer’s Nude Self-Portrait, ca. 1916.

10 In his biography Florine Stettheimer: A Life in Art (New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux [1963]), Parker Tyler does not recognize that it is a self-portrait but refers to the painting as “A Model, circa 1915–16, a recumbent nude with bluish flesh-shading” and notes that the nasturtium red color of the hair is the same color the artist gave herself in the painting Self-Portrait with a Faun/Palette done at the same time. It is amazing that he did not also notice the close similarity of facial features in the two works. The Nude Self-Portrait, titled simply A Nude, was among a large group of paintings Ettie Stettheimer and lawyer Joseph Solomon gave to Columbia University, where they resided in the basement of the Art Properties department. When I was researching my Ph.D. dissertation on Stettheimer (The Life and Art of Florine Stettheimer, Yale University Press, 1995), I identified both the Self-Portrait with Chinese Screen and this Nude Self-Portrait as images of the artist herself because of the identical manner in which she painted her facial features in every previous and subsequent self-portrait, as well as by comparing the painted versions of the few available photographs of her. In the latter, as in every painting, she featured her rounded forehead and pointed chin, large almond eyes with dark crescent brows, long nose, and full lower lip. Although her hairstyle varied between dark full bangs and an open forehead with a central part, it was always in a stylish ear-length bob, and the color dark to nasturtium red. In another passage, discussing Stettheimer’s painting Soirée, Tyler described the Nude Self-Portrait incorrectly, stating, “she placed her nude (titled A Model, and a figure evidently too large for her to handle easily) at the back to contrast with the—to us—invisible canvas opposite; the nude, doubtless, had had its ideal moment, in which Florine had put much that was climactic (all her “student” fervor) but this moment was already past: the artist had come upon her new manner, her new ideal…” (Tyler, Life in Art, p. 110) still not recognizing either the self-portrait or the ironic intention of placing it on the wall as the theme of the painting.

11 Stettheimer’s Nude Self-Portrait measures 47 by 67 inches, Titian’s Venus of Urbino measures 47 by 65 inches, Francisco Goya’s Nude Maja measures 38 by 74 inches, and Edouard Manet’s Olympia measures 51 by 75 inches. Roberto C. Ferrari, curator of the Columbia University works of art collections that include Stettheimer’s Nude Self-Portrait, has written that under ultraviolet light one can see that the artist “overpainted the attenuated legs, which bear a striking resemblance to those of Ingres’s odalisque” [Grande Odalisque, 1814]. This then is another Old Master painting of a nude by a male artist that demonstrates Stettheimer’s wide knowledge of Western art history.

12 Stettheimer, Crystal Flowers, 60.

13 Ibid., 44.

14 Nochlin, Art in America, Rococo Subversive, 73.

15 Eksteins, Modris, Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age, Houghton Mifflin, 1989, pp. 266-70.

16 In the minds of a few forward-thinking people, the view that homosexuality and untraditional gender roles was a form of insanity was slowly changing, based on the spread of Freud’s theory that all humans were born with a bisexual disposition, and represented an arresting of sexual development.

17 There is some confusion as to the dating of this work. According to a loose paper in the Stettheimer archives at Columbia University, Carl Van Vechten believed it to have been painted between 1925 and 1930, and not in 1920, as indicated in the poster of Caruso on the left side of the composition. The poster, he suggested, was an old one that had remained on the reviewing stand for several years. Van Vechten himself was at work on Nigger Heaven in 1924–26, and that obviously added to his belief in a later date. There are, however, several exhibition reviews that discuss the painting in 1921, indicating 1920 is correct.

18 Victoria Wolcott, Race, Riots, and Roller Coasters: The Struggle over Segregated Recreation in America (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012), p. 24.

19 “Answering Mr. Bradley: Colored People at Asbury Park Speak Out at Meeting,” New York Times, June 28, 1887.

20 Gaston Lachaise to Stettheimer, March 23, 1921, Stettheimer Papers, Beineke Library, Yale University.

21 Although they were both fully aware of Stettheimer’s Asbury Park South painting of 1920, in a book on the Mexican artist Miguel Covarrubias’s Negro Drawings (introduction by Frank Crowninshield; New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1927), Crowninshield mistakenly claimed that Covarrubias was “the first important artist in America . . . to bestow upon our Negro anything like the reverent attention . . . which Gauguin bestowed upon the natives of the South Seas.” This was seven years after Asbury Park South was painted and exhibited by Stettheimer, and in many ways Covarrubias’s drawings are still caricatures. There were several very fine African-American artists who painted scenes of everyday life of African-Americans within their own context during the 1920s. These include Archibald Motley Jr., Winold Reiss, and Aaron Douglas, among others, however they did not have the opportunity to exhibit their work in the kind of significant venues and museums as white artists such as Stettheimer.

22 Stettheimer was by no means the only one obsessed with images of Washington. The first president’s picture was often reproduced, and his life was the subject of articles in popular magazines throughout the period between the world wars. In 1919 Vanity Fair ran an article describing a newly found diary of Washington covering the period 1782–83, when he was in France. Gilbert Stuart’s image of Washington graced the cover of the magazine in March 1932, with superimposed images of gangsters.

23 The facial expression indicates Stettheimer copied a contemporary black-and-white state photograph of the president that was popular at the time in which he similarly faces forward.

24 Bell, Elliott, “What is Wall Street, The New York Times Magazine, Jan. 2, 1938.

25 “North Atlantic Folk and Racial Discourse” in Donna M. Cassidy, Marsden Hartley: Race, Region, and Nation (New Hampshire Press, 2005), 263.

26 I am very grateful to Barbara Haskell for providing me this information.

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