Franklin Einspruch

Writing Archive

A painter poetaster

The New Criterion, June 2022 (read there)

Shortly after Florine Stettheimer’s death in 1944, her younger sister excised whole sections of the artist’s diaries for reasons, it seems, of envy and propriety. Around fifteen years later, the Stettheimer family lawyer commissioned a biography of Florine. Its author later admitted that he had used his “overactive imagination to fabricate readings of Stettheimer’s personality, work and intentions.”

Barbara Bloemink has attempted to rectify the ensuing damage to Florine’s reputation in a properly researched biography with contemporary analysis. This noble project is marred by two shortcomings. One is conformity to fashionable art-historical obsessions. The other is copy littered with unstylish repetitions, baffling constructions, faulty word choices, anarchic punctuation, inexplicable emphases, and nattering. Bloemink gets her literary act together somewhat when she describes specific works of art, but the analysis never recovers.

Much of the biography is inferred from Stettheimer’s poems. Alas, this recollection of a romantic dalliance is typical:

You stirred me
You made me giddy
Then you poured oil on my stirred self
I’m mayonnaise.

That is to say, they’re dull, shapeless, stunted of line, and sometimes laughable. Bloemink has clearly overestimated them, and they pervade the book.

Florine Stettheimer was born in 1871 in Rochester, New York, to moneyed German Jews. Her father suffered a series of business humiliations and abandoned the family in 1878. Her mother took the children to Germany. Florine’s childhood in Stuttgart was happy and privileged. It culminated with enrollment at the Art Students League in New York City. By 1910, aged almost forty, she had absorbed the consciousness of the nouvelle femme phenomenon. She also developed a hatred of all things German. Bloemink interprets this as a feminist rejection of cultural filial obligations, but that doesn’t explain how Stettheimer grew unable to tolerate how Germans smell. It’s apparent fifty pages into the text that the artist, despite her talent and intelligence, is a superficial, whingeing snob. The word “caustic” appears with surprising frequency. She’s unlikable, and not just because she resembles certain girls whom I remember from Hebrew school.

Fleeing the Great War, the Stettheimers relocated again to New York. In 1916 Florine painted a work that has long been known as A Model and is still known by that name at the institution that owns it, which is Columbia University, although the book labels it as Nude Self-Portrait from the Museum of Modern Art. “The painting is the second known nude self-portrait ever painted by a woman artist,” writes Bloemink, “and the first nude self-portrait decidedly painted from a woman’s gaze.” So who painted the first known female nude self-portrait? Bloemink buries the answer in a footnote. She offers no dates for Paula Modersohn-Becker’s Self-Portrait as Standing Nude or its study but writes that “both are in traditional, male-oriented, ‘presentation’ poses.”

Bloemink has it backwards. Self-Portrait as Standing Nude—from ten years earlier—is dark and enigmatic, the pose evoking some mysterious rite. The figure in A Model is displaying her goods on a bed in a sunny boudoir. Bloemink insists that “Stettheimer’s nude body possess [sic] the gaze rather than being the object of it—this is the first known example of a nude self-portrait of a ‘female’ rather than the ‘male’ gaze.” But that gaze is far more objectifying than Modersohn-Becker’s. I get the sense that the subject of A Model is not the artist, precisely, but a doppelgänger to which the artist could direct her affections, as if combining the myths of Pygmalion and Narcissus.

Stettheimer family parties became known as some of the best salons in New York. Marcel Duchamp frequently dropped in, as did Gaston Lachaise, Francis Picabia, Elie Nadelman, and Leo Stein. These soirées are the subject of several endearing canvases from the late Teens, intensely hued pictures in which sinuous figures cavort in proscenium-like settings. The war left her art untouched. Her paintings were included in twenty exhibitions between 1921 and 1924. Critics noted her art’s originality and charm.

A chapter on Stettheimer’s work from 1919 to 1927 commences with the observation that “Each painting’s subject addressed a highly controversial issue for the time and dealt with some form of identity politics.” When two paragraphs later Bloemink counsels that “it is important to take history on its own terms and not conflate the past and the present,” one wonders if she can hear herself. Stettheimer painted scenes of Lake Placid, which was segregated against Jews, and Asbury Park, which was segregated against blacks, as joyous, miscegenated Arcadias. Here we find the strength of Stettheimer’s undeniable frivolity as an antidote to pain, with a side effect of visions of heaven on earth. Identity politics, on the contrary, condemns such inclinations to colorblindness, integration, and common humanity, and its proponents have reclassified Jews from oppressed to oppressors. Bloemink ought to mind that bandwagon she’s trying to jump on. (The author assiduously capitalizes “Black” and lowercases “white” according to the latest progressive diktats, yet she often forgets whether “its” or “it’s” is the possessive.)

Another chapter delves into Stettheimer’s portraits, which are said to “reflect the influences of the contemporary socio-cultural climate as well as Bergson’s theories if [sic] time and the artists’ [sic] discussions with Duchamp about the fourth dimension.” Stettheimer painted imaginative portraits from memory and reference, which she would unveil at tea parties that she hosted for the benefit of the subject and their shared entourage. The paintings are indeed inventive, especially the portrait of Duchamp, who cranks a surrealist contraption in order to hoist his female alter ego. Whether they’re particularly four-dimensional I decline to speculate.

The Great Depression did not so much as dent the family’s lifestyle. The time thereafter corresponds with the most interesting and least gaffe-prone section of the book, in which Stettheimer is given an opportunity to create a stage design and costumes for an opera composed by Virgil Thomson, Four Saints in Three Acts. Gertrude Stein wrote the libretto. It debuted with an all-black cast at the Wadsworth Atheneum, which at the time was Chick Austin’s avant-garde hotbed in Hartford. Critics raved, and the show went to Broadway. Toscanini and Alexander Calder attended the opening.

This success prompted her to move permanently into her studio. She was soon working on what would be her final pictures, a series that included the The Cathedrals of Art (1942–44), which Hilton Kramer called “a prophetic as well as a delightful painting.” Bloemink outlines the circumstances surrounding the subject, the backroom dealing among MOMA, the Metropolitan Museum, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, each vying to represent the most important new art of the time, with none of them agreeing on what that was. Stettheimer died in the year of its completion. In 1946 Duchamp organized a retrospective of her work that appeared at MOMA, San Francisco’s de Young Memorial Museum, and the Arts Club of Chicago to critical praise all around.

Florine Stettheimer deserves to be known better. Bloemink has done able work assembling the facts of the artist’s biography, even if couching her approach in overreaching, sometimes dishonest analysis, in a book untouched by editorial grace. Bloemink’s attempt to turn Stettheimer into a feminist icon and artist of identity politics falls flat. But in spite of itself it establishes Stettheimer as the first Jewish American Princess of art-historical significance. That counts for something, though it’s hard to say what.

Word count: 1216

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