During her lifetime, the New York socialite, painter, and poet Florine Stettheimer (1871–1944) straddled the line between insider and outsider, her aristocratic status dueling with her identities as a Jew, an artist, and a woman. This condition has interfered with the subsequent appreciation of her work: for a time, it was too feminine, and later, too bourgeois. At the Jewish Museum, Stettheimer’s lyrical, colorful output is characterized as a unique strand of American Symbolism chronicling an elusive, shimmering, and rapidly changing moment in US history. Institutions with substantial holdings of Stettheimer’s work (Columbia and Yale universities, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, among them) have lent astonishing examples of her paintings and costume and set designs to the show, with the disappointing exception of “The Cathedrals of Art,” a series of four paintings that remains on view at the Met just a few blocks away.
Stettheimer’s images at first seem like whipped confections, showing shopping sprees at high-end department stores (Spring Sale at Bendel’s, 1921), jaunts to the beach (Asbury Park South, 1920), or leisurely picnics (Sunday Afternoon in the Country, 1917). But Stettheimer was, like Edith Wharton, cuttingly self-aware, as evidenced in her abundant self-portraits—as well as in her ecstatic poems, some of which are reproduced on the gallery walls. In Studio Party (Soirée), 1917–19, a nude, Olympia-esque self-portrait hanging in the back of the artist’s studio overlooks her mother and sisters Carrie and Ettie, along with artist Gaston Lachaise and critic Leo Stein. Stettheimer here is at once vulnerable and completely in control. Today, figurative painting by female artists is on the rise. Stettheimer may be their patron saint, an inspired draftsman and colorist, with wit to boot. —Julia Wolkoff
Pictured: Florine Stettheimer: Spring Sale at Bendel’s, 1921, oil on canvas, 50 by 40 inches. Courtesy the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, and the Jewish Museum, New York.