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A Rare Florine Stettheimer Doubleheader: As the Whitney Museum Acquires One Painting, Another Heads to Auction

Florine Stettheimer, New York – Liberty, 1918.


Because the great American modernist Florine Stettheimer rarely parted with her inimitable paintings, only a limited number have ever been held in private collections. Following Stettheimer’s death, in 1944, one of her sisters, Ettie, donated some to museums in the United States, and a bounty from Ettie’s own estate was later given to Columbia University in New York. Consequently, it is extremely rare for a Stettheimer to be available on the open market or for one to be donated to a museum. However, with the passing of the famed Egyptologist, curator, and collector William Kelly Simpson earlier this year, at the age of 89, both events are occurring.

The Whitney Museum in New York recently received Stehttheimer’s New York – Liberty (1919) as a bequest from Simpson’s estate, given in honor of his father, Kenneth F. Simpson, who was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from New York, and his mother, Helen-Louise Knickerbacker Porter Simpson. It is the second Stettheimer painting to enter the museum’s holdings, following Sun (1931), which the museum purchased in 1973. The museum’s board officially ratified its accession yesterday.

“This is the first day that it is officially at the Whitney,” David Breslin, curator and director of the collection at the Whitney, said, noting that the museum hung the painting in its collection show “Where We Are” last week. Breslin noted that Simpson had lent the work to the museum’s landmark 1995 Stettheimer exhibition, along with three other works by the artist, and that Leonard Lauder, who is now the museum’s chairman emeritus, had been lobbying since then for the work to eventually find its home at the Whitney.

New York – Liberty is a Manhattan cityscape painted from the perspective of New York Harbor, with the Statue of Liberty and a navy ship ferrying in the foreground. (Stettheimer heavily built up the folds of Lady Liberty, visibly rising from the canvas.) The work sports a frame that resembles a stretch of red, white, and blue rope with gold tassels at its ends, and it is crowned with a large, gold bald eagle. It is glorious, and it may be familiar to New Yorkers, since it appeared as the only loan in the Whitney’s inaugural show, “American Is Hard to See” and was also included in the Stettheimer retrospective that ended its run at the Jewish Museum last month. (That show is opens at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto on Saturday.)

Florine Stettheimer, Portrait of Marcel Duchamp and Rrose Sélavy, 1923.


Meanwhile, Christie’s is planning to offer another Stettheimer that Simpson owned at its sale of American art in New York on November 21, Portrait of Marcel Duchamp and Rrose Sélavy (1923), which shows Duchamp sitting in an armchair embroidered with his initials, working a crank that sends aloft on a mechanical spring his female alter ego, Sélavy, resplendent in a pink outfit. This one also has a remarkable frame—gray with the Duchamp’s initials repeated all around it. “In the portrait he is something of a Pierrot perched aloft upon a Jack-in-Box contraption which he is surreptitiously manipulating to gain greater heights for his apotheosis,” the critic Henry McBride wrote of that work.

Duchamp and Stettheimer shared a long friendship, and he figures in a number of her paintings, including another, earlier portrait, which resides at the Michele and Donald D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts in Springfield, Massachusetts. “Duche”—as she referred to him in a poem—frequented the salon hosted by Florine and her sisters Ettie and Carrie in the early 20th century, apparently gave French lessons to the three, and organized Florine’s posthumous retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1946.

This is only the seventh Stettheimer lot to appear at auction in the last 27 years, according to Artnet’s price database. The most recent to go to auction was an extroverted still life dated 1900 (before what is typically considered the artist’s mature period), which sold for $375,000, above a high estimate of $100,000, at Skinner in Boston last year. Before that, it had been nearly 20 years since one had been offered on the block. (The only other major public transaction involved Stettheimer was the controversial sale of her Asbury Park South, 1920, by the financially beleaguered Fisk University a few years ago to a dealer for an undisclosed sum. It is now in the collection of dealers Michael Rosenfeld and Halley K. Harrisburg.)

Christie’s has estimated that the double Duchamp will fetch between $1 million and $1.5 million, an estimate roughly 10 times the $110,000 that Simpson paid for the work when he acquired it at Sotheby’s New York in 1990. It was being sold then from the estate of the composer and writer Virgil Thomson, whose blockbuster opera Four Saints in Three Acts (1928) featured stage design and costumes by Stettheimer and a libretto by Gertrude Stein. Marc Porter, the chairman of Christie’s Americas, noted in an email that Thomson “chose to live at the Chelsea Hotel with this extraordinarily important portrait of Duchamp and donated his portrait by Stettheimer to the Art Institute of Chicago.” (That painting has a pink-hued Thomson playing the piano in a celestial land—it’s really something.)

The Stettheimer is being sold at Christie’s as part of its auction of the estate of Simpson, who was curator of Egyptian and Ancient Near Eastern Art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, part of boards at various museums, and a member of the Century Association, Union Club, the University Club, the Metropolitan Opera Club, River Club, Piping Rock Club, and the Sons of the American Revolution, to name a few. Also among the works that will be offered are pieces by Vuillard, Mattise, and Bonnard that he collected with his wife Mary Milton Simpson, who was a great-granddaughter of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. They kept these works on an estate in upstate New York that was known to some Yale students as “Llamaland” since two llamas were seen at annual parties held there for students in the university’s Timothy Dwight College.

There is no telling where the one at Christie’s will end up, but we can hope that at least a few public institutions are checking their acquisition budgets and phoning potential donors, planning to make a play for the work. It will go on view at the Rockefeller Center headquarters of the auction house from October 20 to 24, November 11 to 13, and November 18 to 20. For those few days it will be available to anyone who can make the trek to Midtown.

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